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Boyband WINNER are K-pop with a twist

After winning a primetime talent show, the five-piece are taking over with their fusion of hip hop beats and balladry

Korea, like everywhere else, is no stranger to reality shows for unknown singers. Last year's WIN (Who Is Next) was different. Unlike The X Factor or American Idol, where real talent is mixed in with amusingly-bad hopefuls, every contestant in WIN was destined for success. The show’s 11 male contestants were all signed to YG Entertainment, home to K-pop innovators such as 2NE1 and BIGBANG and one of the most powerful record labels in Asia – arguably the world. Divided into Team A and Team B, they were set in ruthless competition.

The public eventually crowned Team A victorious, who were subsequently renamed WINNER after their success on the show. The five-piece went into their own reality show, scored a support slot with BIGBANG in Japan and begun work on their debut album alongside YG's stellar stable of producers. Though the official debut of Tae-hyun, Mino, Seung-yoon, Seung-hoon and Jin-woo had been slated for spring, it wasn't until the end of August that double lead singles, “Empty” and “Color Ring” arrived to lay waste to no less than nine South Korean charts, as well as finding success in China and Japan.

Anyone expecting the pounding beats and flashy videos that characterise many boyband debuts may have been startled by WINNER’s gentle sound and their low-key, stylish approach to hip hop-inspired midtempo pop – but the five-piece aren't your usual K-pop act. To boot, all members have writing credits on their debut album 2014 S/S – unheard of for a new Korean group – which combines sophisticated pop ballads like “Color Ring” with the genre-mashing “Don't Flirt” and confident hip hop centrepiece “I'm Him”.

It's been a long wait for the album. Were you impatient to release 2014 S/S or glad of the extra time to prepare?

Tae-hyun: I felt two different ways: I really wanted to meet our fans who’ve been waiting for us, but on the other hand I also felt a bit relieved because I wanted us to come out with a perfect album.

Mino: Until we as a group came out with music that we all felt proud of, I thought it was a no-brainer (to wait). I wanted us to deliver the best music possible, as well as the best performances we could give. When (our singles) ‘Empty’ and ‘Color Ring’ achieved an ‘all-kill’ on the charts I was floored and couldn’t believe it! I kept refreshing the chart website and took a screen shot.

You worked on “Empty” with B.I and Bobby from your past rivals Team B (now renamed iKON). What was it like working with them? And will you guys contribute to their music when the time comes for them to release?

Mino: Collaborating with them was so much fun. I’d love it if we could be of any help for when Team B debuts.

Tae-hyun, you have a solo song “Confession” on the album – what inspired that track?

Tae-hyun: While I was working on ‘Confession’ I was surfing the Internet and saw a short video clip of an advertisement. In that video I saw a female model that I couldn’t get out of my head. I tried to look her up and search her but never found her. If you look at it one way, it was love at first sight? I used that experience to write the lyrics and the melody.

“We want to have a place in your daily lives – one that is a familiar and close place – whether through the radio, your headphones, on the bus, or a in a café” – Seung-hoon

What was the hardest thing for you in making this album? And do you feel changed as people having completed this long process?

Jin-woo: While going through this long process, we did our best to put out the best album possible. Personally, I practiced a lot during this time. I wanted to work even harder to really be recognized.

Mino: I would make so many edits and changes to one song that my judgement would get fuzzy. Will the fans and the public like it? Will it be able to connect? Also, I asked myself ‘will I have to compromise my bold style and image’? After dealing with that for a period of time, I was able find my sense of peace.

Unlike boybands such as EXO-K or B.A.P your debut singles were ballads. How did you feel about that?

Seung-yoon: People expected us to be a performance-heavy group – but in order to change that image we needed some sort of unexpected surprise.

Mino: Although songs with a catchy hook and heavy beat aren’t bad, we didn’t want to follow trends.

Seung-hoon: We want to have a place in your daily lives – one that is a familiar and close place – whether through the radio, your headphones, on the bus, or a in a café.

One of the groups' early self-composed songs from WIN – “Smile Again” – was on your album, but you remade the gritty original into a song with a lighter style. What made you want to make that change?

Seung-yoon: Personally, I do like the ‘Smile Again’ version from WIN, however as the actual group WINNER, I believe it was necessary to change up the arrangement in order to have a new start.

Mino: Because it was already released, we arranged it differently and raised the level of maturity. To us, it’s a special song with a lot of memories behind it; it’s the song of our lives.

The model concept in your album teaser looked great – were you confident when taking to the catwalk?

Seung-hoon: Walking the runway confidently in the midst of flashing lights was one of my long-time dreams that I’ve had. To have been able to experience it was such a thrill. The others did a good job walking, but I was wearing a shoe with a higher heel so I felt a bit nervous. I was a bit unsatisfied with my performance.

Let's play a game, I'll give you a word and you attach it to a member.

Dignified: Tae-hyun, Seung-hoon

Stubborn: Tae-hyun, Seung-hoon

Moody: Tae-hyun

Patient: Jin-woo

Snores the loudest: Jin-woo

The one who finds weird things funny: Seung-yoon

Easily distracted: Mino

Generous: Seung-hoon, Seung-yoon

Most likely to say something embarrassing to a fan: Tae-hyun

Vain: Seung-yoon

Finally, what message do you have for your international fans?

Mino: Although physically we may be far apart, through our music we want to communicate with you and be close. And I want to see you anytime possible. Together let’s be true winners! I love you!

Seung-hoon: Like our seniors, BIGBANG and 2NE1, I want to bring a lot of good music and go on a world tour, visiting each country to thank the fans, and let them hear our music.