(Yonhap Feature) Punk rock at crossroads in South Korea
By Graham Osborne
SEOUL, Nov. 9 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's punk scene has been in steady decline over the last few years with many clubs in Seoul closing down, but the phoenix of Korean punk music may be rising from the ashes. Last month, at Club Spot near Hongdae, a university campus neighborhood in western Seoul, the compilation album "Them and Us" was released showcasing 11 local punk bands who aim to give the Korean scene a shakeup.
"Them and Us" features bands from different genres of punk and is the first major Korean punk compilation since the 2002 release of "We are the Punks Korea." Each of the 11 bands on the album plays one original song and one cover version, hence the title.
The brainchild of this new release is Jeff Moses from the band Whatever That Means, which is about to embark on a U.S. tour to spread the gospel of Korean punk to a mostly untapped market.
"First and foremost, we wanted to give local bands a chance to record something new," Moses said. "I'm hoping it will draw attention to the local scene. Since Whatever That Means is going on tour in the U.S. in a couple of months, this is a chance to take this music and give it to people abroad."
Moses is passionate about Korean punk bands and is optimistic about their future despite the recent drop-off of interest in the scene.
"The main reason we are going to the U.S. is to open doors for the Korean scene," he said. "Everything we are doing is so that in the future, Korean punk will be like in the '90s when Japanese punk hit really big in America. We want to help Korean bands do that now."
Burning Hepburns at Club Spot (Courtesy of Graham Osborne)
Both Korean and Western musicians feature on the album. Whatever That Means are a mixed Korean/Western band while The Seoul City Suicides are the only all ex-pat band on the album.
"We've got bands from all different genres and labels on the new CD," Moses said. "There is Skasucks, probably my favorite band in Korea, and we play a lot of shows with them. The super talented Burning Hepburn from Daejeon are one of the earliest ska punk bands coming out of Korea, and they've been around since the '90s.
"Another band on the album is The Geeks and they are the most important Korean hardcore band ever. They are the only successful Korean punk band that has done a tour of America."
The punk scene in Seoul has always revolved around the Hongdae area and was probably at its peak in the late '90s and early 2000s with the legendary Skunkhell the major venue for weekend gigs. Skunkhell had its own label and released "We are the Punks Korea." "Them and Us" hopes to rekindle some of the fire of those days.
Skunkhell closed a few years ago and other venues are following suit as Hongdae regentrifies itself with franchise restaurants and chain coffee shops taking the place of live music venues and cheap university take-outs. This doesn't bode well for the local punk scene, but the bands are not going to give up without a fight.
"The punk scene and the hardcore scene has got smaller and smaller over the last couple of years and a big point of this was to draw attention to it and say hey there is stuff here," said Moses. "It is organized, there are live shows. Hopefully people will hear about this show and get the CD and it will make them want to go see other shows."
Seoul City Suicides drummer Raymond P. Fontesque has played in different punk bands on the Seoul scene for the last four years and was over the moon when his band got the call to be on the album.
Whatever That Means at the Them and Us release
"I'm pretty stoked about being on the album," he said. "Whatever That Means have done a great job of promoting the Seoul punk scene. It's about time that something like this happened and I think it has to keep on happening. There is so much techno music around these days and this is something different."
Skasucks organ player Bum Joo said he liked the idea of different punk bands with different styles coming together to play on the album and hopes it could lead to success overseas. "We usually write our lyrics in English so many people from other countries can enjoy our music," he said. "We want to play overseas and we are trying to make chances and hopefully the scene will grow bigger and bigger."
The future of Korean punk music won't be decided by the release of this album, but it could prove an inspiration to a wave of Korean youth that live on a steady diet of prefabricated pop music. It is just a matter of getting them interested.
"If the high school kids and college kids realize how much they get pushed around and how angry they should be, then Korean punk rock will thrive," Moses said. "It's kind of at a crossroads at the moment. It could go either way."