(Listen to GrooveCast host Chance Dorland’s interview with “Broke In Korea” punk magazine creator Jon Dunbar and “…Whatever That Means” band member Jeff Moses on the podcast player below!)
At the end of a long alley in Hongdae, at Double A Studios, it’s time for Birthday Party Like Shit II.
It’s Yuppie Killer guitarist Iain Whyte and singer Tim Sean’s birthday, but nobody cares. Everyone would have been there, anyway, to see Yuppie Killer, The Kitsches, Dead Gakkahs, Animal Anthem, FIND THE SPOT, SAGAL, Konorrea, Durchfall and Huqueymsaw play.
Double A Studios has become a regular venue for hardcore punk shows in Hongdae. What is normally a small, soundproof practice space also serves as a venue where the bands play, accompanied by a large parking lot where the punks smoke, talk and drink plastic cups of riot punch. Tonight is a special night: Along with the usual soju, cider, Hot Six and wine, there is Everclear in the riot punch. Its effects are ugly, but then so are the bands.
In Korea, being punk is not normal. Besides being a form of fast and aggressive music, punk represents a defiant attitude that contradicts traditional Korean values of deference, obedience and career ambition. The movement was a shock to the West when it first came out in the 1970s; in Korea, its pulse is so weak that punk’s existence has been threatened ever since it began.
Kang Yong-jun, 29, is the singer for Banran, a hardcore band not playing tonight. He learned about rock ‘n’ roll when he was young, and from there he kept “digging, digging, digging” until he discovered hardcore — and never looked back.
Kang complains about Koreans being “two-faced” and argues that their nationalism sometimes borders on “Nazi” territory. For him, hardcore is about giving two middle fingers to mainstream Korean society.
“I sing about anti-Korea things, which means people are really nationalistic here and most want convenience for everything,” Kang says. “For everyone, getting a job in Samsung is their goal. Everybody. Not just a few people, but every fucking person. … I’m so pissed off. I can barely meet people I can talk with.”
With punk, Kang has a voice.
The rise and fall of Joseon punk
Before the 1990s, South Korea heard very little outside music. Despite its rapid economic development with the Saemaeul (New Village) Movement, dictatorships kept the nation’s airwaves heavily censored. When the regime was finally toppled, however, the wall of censorship was dismantled and the young democracy was thirsty for new voices.
Punk trickled into the Korean market alongside mainstream rock ‘n’ roll, blues, hip-hop, folk, heavy metal and other genres. “Suddenly, information democratized,” says Jon Dunbar, publisher of the punk magazine Broke in Korea. “They could listen to foreign music; they could go online and listen to foreign stuff, so they were introduced to several decades of music all at once.”
There were no musical eras, no progression of one style to another. “The first bands that started made music that was kind of a compression of this. The influences would be from all (over),” says Dunbar, 35.
The first punk bands in Korea included groups like Crying Nut and No Brain. They didn’t call themselves punk rock, but rather “Joseon punk” — meant to set themselves apart from the West, to say, “We’re not a punk band — we’re playing punk in a Korean way,” Dunbar says.
The first punk “clubs” weren’t really clubs at all, but venues with no bar. Club Drug was an early one, and in 2004 Skunk Hell opened. Skunk Hell was all black, with old show posters and graffiti covering the walls. It was “basically a dingy basement,” Dunbar says. “It was never particularly nice.” Club Spot opened in 2007 in a basement across from the Hongdae playground, this time with a bar and a weekly lineup of shows.
From 2004 to 2006, Korean punk reached its heyday. Club Drug was running, Skunk Hell was flourishing, bands like Crying Nut, Rux and Samchung were playing weekly and labels like Moonsadan and Culture Scam Organization were pressing CDs and booking bands.
The shows were filled with kids in their teens and early 20s, often in full bondage gear and spiky hair, says Trash Yang, the bassist for …Whatever That Means, cofounder of BB Lucky Town in the early 2000s and one of the first women in the scene. It was at Club Drug where she finally got to hear punk live. Before, she had only heard the bands through cassette tapes. “I was really, really happy to see this,” she says.
A huge boost to the scene came in the form of one short, energetic foreigner who worked incessantly to get Korean punk noticed. His name was Jesse Borison, and he was Korea’s “punk angel,” in Yang’s words. In the last seven years, the U.S. airman has brought over foreign bands like The Queers and NOFX, put up posters on weekends and introduced countless foreigners to the scene. American Jeff Moses, 33, of …Whatever That Means, first ran into him while Borison was putting up posters for The Queers at the Hongdae playground. “He saw me wearing a Social D shirt and he came over and tried to get me to come to the Queers show,” Moses says. Borison showed him where Skunk Hell was and two weeks later they went to the Korea-Japan Punk Fest. Moses now has a tattoo of Borison’s face on his arm. Borison declined to be interviewed for this article.
Another “punk angel” was Won Jong-hee from Rux, a now-legendary band that dates back to the late ’90s. “He did a lot for the scene. He did almost everything,” Dunbar says. “He put on shows, he was in two bands, he apparently made a lot of clothes, he got into tattooing. I mean, you name it, he did it.” But around 2007 or 2008 he burned out. Won also declined to be interviewed.
Punk’s boom became its downfall as the overcrowded scene began to rift. Along with Won, key people began to drop out, some creating their own scenes.
“Especially around 2006, it was huge, with many punk bands going back then,” says Jin Lee, 28, guitarist for metal band Remnants of the Fallen. “And many actually disbanded because there were too many bands playing too many shows.”
The scene began fracturing along genre lines, with bands self-identifying as grindcore, hardcore, skater punk and so on, playing separate shows and arguing amongst themselves. Different subcultures no longer play the same shows, says longtime fan Jae Kim, and the scene has suffered for it. “I know this happens worldwide, but (the Korean scene) is too small for that,” says Kim, 26.
Pulling in audiences was another problem. “There were plenty of bands, but not a lot of people listening to them,” Dunbar says. “So you’d go to a show and it would seem crowded, but that was because everyone was in another band. No one was paying to get in. That was a big problem in the old days.” This meant huge loss of revenue for clubs, especially those that didn’t serve drinks.
People would buy cans of beer at the corner stores and bring them inside, which pulled even more revenue from the clubs, Dunbar says. After eking by on life support for at least a year, Skunk Hell closed in 2009. And like the other venues before it, Club Spot faces closure later this month.
The problem persists today. “It’s so strange to live in a city of 20 million and you literally can draw every hardcore punk to a show and you’ve got 50, 60 people in a room,” says Tim Sean, 32, the lead singer for Yuppie Killer. “Our aim is to get 20 people to pay outside of the bands, so that’s very difficult. I don’t know why it’s so hard, or why people are reluctant. Maybe it’s strange to them.”
“According to my friends who play in punk bands, the glory of the past days is actually over,” Lee says. “It’s become more indie-oriented and they usually play in small venues.”
Nowhere to go
While the bands’ quality continues to thrive, today’s punk scene is not exactly brimming with possibilities. Some labels stopped pressing, older punks got respectable jobs and retired from the scene, and fewer kids have come in to replace them.
“There are still a lot of us here in our 30s,” says Dunbar. “You go to a show now, you’ll see a lot of male pattern baldness.”
“You’ve had basically the same core group of people for 15 years running the punk scene,” adds Moses. “There’s a small influx of younger kids in the scene, but not a lot. Most of the people got into it before the hagwon culture, before the Korean government pushed K-pop as their identity.”
Around 2010, new venues rose up in Mullae-dong. Close to Yeongdeungpo Station, Mullae was a graffitied neighborhood of art galleries, rehearsal spaces and artists’ squats, some of them built over disused steel foundries. New bands like the Veggers, the Kitsches, Banran and Scumraid played there, injecting fresh oxygen into the scene. Though the Mullae venues are now mostly gone, most of the bands still play in Hongdae and elsewhere.
“The bands remain extremely high in quality,” Dunbar says. “Even if you go see a band on their first show, they’re going to come out doing really well. Korean bands practice until they’re good at their songs, which is very different from North American bands.”
The low demand for punk is a double-edged sword for the artists. Since major Korean labels have no interest in punk music, the bands are in the local scene to stay.
“There is no shot of ‘making it’ in Korea as a punk,” Moses says. “Which kind of sucks, because it means you’re always going to have a crappy job. If you want to tour, it’s really hard because Korean jobs don’t give you any time off. But the good side with that is that big labels don’t come in and scoop up all the good bands.
“If we were in L.A., Rux wouldn’t be playing $10 shows at Spot anymore. Bands that I really look up to, we get to play with all the time, because there’s nowhere else for them to go.”
Future of punk
Jae Kim, who has been following the scene for eight years, believes punk will never catch on. Mainstream Korea thinks it’s “wrong” to be different, and that’s why you “only see idol bands on TV.”
“Other people, young students or others out of the scene, they don’t have a chance to experience (this music),” Kim says. “They don’t know how, or they don’t have the chance. It’s not really open.” Kim only found out when she wandered into Spot and then got a job there.
“You walk around the streets, there’s only K-pop,” says Jang Sung-gun, 27, drummer for four different bands. “Every minute you hear another K-pop song, a different K-pop song, which is really disturbing. And after work, when you party with your friends, friends who are not in the punk scene, they go to the karaoke.”
Jang says Korean pressure to conform is still powerful and it can “definitely” be very difficult to be different. “But I’m kind of used to it. I’ve been into this music for 15 years,” he says.
So how does he deal with it? “I just ignore it. Isn’t it the same all around the world? I think so.”
Moses says he has never felt more comfortable and more at home in a scene than here.
“All the bullshit and divisiveness aside, for the past six, seven years, everyone’s been saying, ‘the punk scene is dying, the punk scene is dying,’ and it hasn’t,” he says.
He feels Korea is ripe for more punk kids, given how awful life for a young person can be here. “If Korean kids ever realize how bad they have it, how pissed off they should be, this scene would explode,” he says. “If there’s a country that needs punk rock, it’s Korea.”
While small, the scene is very accepting, especially among foreigners, Sean says. “You see a new face, you always want to say hello, make sure it’s comfortable. The Koreans are always nothing but respectful and kind. They’re always among the first to talk to you after a show and say, ‘Hey great, job,’ even if they’re being insincere. Insincerity is a great trait in a fan.”
Yang has put her time, effort and 20s into punk because she believes punks are more mentally connected. The punks are filling in what they want, what they can’t get from the rest of the culture, or K-pop. “This place is like my other home,” she says. “This is the only place where I can say what I want, where I can be myself.”
Club Spot will host “Still Alive,” Seoul’s original punk rock Halloween costume party, before closing its doors.
When: Oct. 25, 6 p.m.-2 a.m.
Where: Club Spot
Address: Seoul, Mapo-gu, Seogyo-dong 358-34, floor B1
How much: 10,000 won with costume, 15,000 won without; includes 1 hour of unlimited free cocktails