Story by: Sabrina Hill, Photos by: Sabrina Hill
Music is both a by-product of culture and a precursor to social change. As Plato said, “Music is a moral law.” In healthy times it symbolizes the very best we have to hope for; in bad times it questions the failings of our leaders, spiritual and political. If left to form organically, a vibrant scene will emerge and great artists and bands will arise. Out of Seoul, a quiet revolution kicked off in the wake of economic and political failings in the ‘90s, which gave birth to artists like Whang Bo-ryung of SmackSoft.
“Music is like oxygen,” expounds the front-woman in an interview with Groove Korea. “Without it, I’m suspended in a vacuum.”
Seoul is a place that in many ways is not different from any other mega-city. It has a vibrant culture and is a breeding ground for small, eclipsed countercultures, or as much as it can be in a land of Confucian conformity. In a country famous for its auto-tuned dancing boys and girls, a place obsessed with punchy, oversaturated girl and boy bands, which offer nothing to the progression of music as a discipline or an art form, an underground subculture exists.
Since the 1990s, a small but gowing circle of bands and artists have fought the good fight; producing and playing in the impalpable rock scene of Seoul in places reminiscent of London’s UFO club. In 1997, Korea, along with a number of other Asian nations, entered a devastating economic crisis that would sweep the world and crash global markets. With the crisis stirring up the fears and discontent of young Koreans, a cultural shift began to take place.
In Seoul, an angry class of under- or unemployed college grads began to express themselves in ways often unseen in the glossy veneer of Korea’s capital. In clubs with colorful names hidden in the darkest of winding and unending alleys of Hongdae, the screams began to rise, accompanied by driving percussion and fuzzy guitars; songs sharing their discontent with unresponsive public officials and abusive, shortsighted capitalists began to emerge from the collective body of a jilted youth.
In sitting down with Whang Bo-ryung, the front-woman of SmackSoft, she talks of the scene in Seoul when she returned to her birth nation during the very difficult times of the mid-to-late ‘90s. She recalls that the scene was not so different from that of London in the late ‘60s, where out of the quiet desperation of a young, angry generation some of the best music was born. Bo, as she likes to be known, reminisces about the scene when she made her emergence as a solo artist. “There were fewer bands around and the atmosphere was entirely different back then.”
After spending her formative years growing up in New York City during the hardcore punk and street punk days, Bo set out on an extended tramp around the world to find herself and her voice. “Japan, Vietnam, France, Thailand — I just needed to travel, to see the world, so I left home.”
After learning to focus all of her artistic gifts into a medium that seemed natural to this accomplished iconoclast, she returned to Korea in 1998 and put out her first solo album, “Cat with Three Ears.” With a penetrating, husky voice and a unique, colorful musical accompaniment, Bo made a dent in the burgeoning Seoul underground. She recalls those early days: “From ‘96 to ‘98 when I was working on my first album, I was playing a lot of acoustic shows. Just me and my guitar. People saw me as something different. Colorful hair. Piercings. People were fascinated, and I represented something new and different at the time, I guess.” Bo describes her look back then as New York punk and her sound from the album “Cat with Three Ears” as “punkno,” a curious fusion of punk and an early-German industrial techno.
Korea, with all its beauty, has inalienable characteristics. This country innately places a higher value on the elderly and the wealthy; as a result, a youthful antagonism began to manifest among a seething underclass. London, Seattle, New York or Seoul, the reason for the maturation of an underground alternative rock scene is always the same. It is an impulse, a compulsion, to express the outrage of the collective youth. This cultural shift inevitably led to the rise of the petulant protopunk bands and artists like Bo.
After Bo’s second album, “Sun Sign,” she fell off the grid. Wanting to develop her other artistic talents, in 2003 she went back to New York to get her B.F.A. from the Pratt Institute. Bo cites motivation from a high school teacher who recognized her gifts and prompted her to head to the noted art college. After an eight-year absence from the music scene in Seoul, this intelligent and introverted rocker returned, this time with the modest goal of re-tooling her sound and applying the theories of dimension, light and color into her music. What she learned at Pratt, and naturally developed as she saw and experienced more, she took to the studio and created the innovative EP “SmackSoft 2.5,” which went on to win the Korean Album of the Year award in 2008 from Gaseum Network Art and Culture Group.
While her name started to become synonymous with the avant-garde sound in Seoul, the once-angry youth began to become a part of the system she once clashed with. The “Seoul sound” that embodied the disgruntled youth of the 90s began to whither in the early part of the last decade. It was crushed under the weight of the addictive and artistically unsophisticated opiate for the Korean commonage. The battle cries were replaced with the monotonous seasonal sounds of sexually-suggestive teens singing about “sexy boy” and smartphones.
Since the release of “SmackSoft 2.5” in 2008, the band has gone on to release three more albums: “Shines in the Dark” in 2009, “Mana Wind” in 2010 and “Follow Your Heart” last year. Bo and the rest of SmackSoft embarked upon an American tour of small and large towns in search of a willing, participatory audience who can appreciate hypnotic tracks like “It is You and Me” from their fifth album. Discovering that they had fans in the strangest of places gave the band the energy to continue.
Members of the band have come and gone and the sound has changed, but all of the current members — Seo Jin-sil on drums, Ryu Seong-hyun on guitar, Kang Ha-neul on keyboard and Shin G-yong on bass — appreciate their opportunity to keep the sound alive in Seoul and around the world. “I don’t know what the next SmackSoft album will sound like just yet, but it will reflect where we are as individuals, and as a collective. That’s always what we’ve done in the studio, and I don’t see that process changing,” says Bo.
Drawing on the highly talented Bo to add depth, dimensionality and variety to each album, the rest of the band is as equally eclectic. With an accomplished drummer, a bluesy bass player, a colorful keyboardist, and a truly exceptional guitarist, SmackSoft’s albums are ranging, powerful and surprising. When attending a live performance or giving any of their albums a spin, whether it is the industrial-punk rock of SmackSoft’s earlier albums or the trippy melodies off of “Follow Your Heart,” expect a show that is unlike the mainstream musical fare from Korea.
Look for Bo’s solo album in October, which will be an acoustic experiment in sound for this progressive Queen of Punk. Capitalizing on her training as a painter, she plans to include accompanying artwork for each individual track. She intends to display the paintings during upcoming live shows, upping the ante from punk show to avant garde performance art.
For more information on SmackSoft, go to their website, www.smacksoft.net. They’re also on Facebook (/smacksoft) and Twitter (@SmackSoft).