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Meeting the K-Pop band who are bigger than One Direction

With their razor sharp pop songs, complex mythology, and preternatural good looks, EXO have dominated the Korean charts – and since the implosion of Harry Styles et al they’ve become the biggest boyband in the world

No one does boybands like South Korea, and no one does fandoms like K-Pop. When nine almost preternaturally good-looking young men, all skilled singers and dancers, tear up the stage in stadiums roughly the size of a small city, spare a thought for the teenage hearts promptly slain. This is EXO. And, since the implosion of One Direction, they’re the biggest boyband in the world.

EXO are at the forefront of pop domination, with knife-point choreography seamlessly gelled to songs crafted by some of the world’s most gifted writers and producers, honed by their myriad of personalities and talents. One fan fiction site alone hosts over 132,000 stories written about them. Their fandom, known as EXO-L or Eris, have propelled the group to sell over 14 million singles and 6 million albums, and their latest and third full-length, EX'ACT, topped the charts after breaking pre-order records set by their second, EXODUS.  

EXO have never been your average boyband, even for K-Pop. Their label, SM Entertainment, simultaneously debuted two versions of the same group in 2012 – one Chinese, one Korean. Respectively, EXO M and EXO K sang the same songs in the corresponding language and performed as both a six-piece and 12-piece to create a continent-straddling pop juggernaut.

They were given a fantastical narrative (each is an alien from EXO Planet with a superpower, such as telekinesis or healing) that was so complicated it came with 23 teasers before their debut single “MAMA” was even released, setting fans on a years-long quest to decipher the ongoing saga. Dramatic and overblown, with Gregorian chanting and a hardcore punk vocal on the breakdown, “MAMA” was one hell of an entrance.

Despite the upheaval of three members leaving over the past two years, a fascinating musical and visual journey continues to unfold, at times entangled deep in their imagined mythology (such as the mind-mangling ‘Pathcode’ teasers for EXODUS), at others letting simple brilliance shine (the award-winning single “Growl”).

The music, too, has found natural stepping stones – from the jarring EDM experiment of “Wolf” to the joyous and sensual pop-funk of “Call Me Baby” and “Love Me Right”, to EX'ACT and its lead singles; the dark, shivering impatience of “Monster” (like a dangerous elder sibling of “Overdose”) and its cool, gleaming opposite, “Lucky One”, reminiscent of Daft Punk and Pharrell’s collaborations.

EX'ACT could have easily been EXODUS 2.0, and who would blame them for wanting to replicate its success? However, the band confess that EX’ACT “looks more into the inner side of EXO, to start a new episode with new music styles and performances”. “We now think more about the long-term goals as a group and as individuals… it’d be a lie to say we weren’t worried about how the public would take it,” they continue, “there was great pressure in preparing this album.”

Songs like “Artificial Love”, “One And Only” and “White Noise” make overtures to electronic minimalism, sidling away from the warm layers of R&B on earlier tracks like “Playboy”, “Lady Luck” or “XOXO”, and where there is similarity, such as the closing ballads – “Stronger” for EX'ACT and “Beautiful” for EXODUS – they toy with the former like prey, stripping it to bare bones. Ask if there was any unsurety over new material and they hedge momentarily. “We wouldn’t say we ‘weren’t sure’, but we were slightly worried about ‘Monster’,” they admit. “We couldn’t imagine how the performance would be, but it came out really well!”

With all the members in their mid-20s, having spent years living in a dormitory (a practice undertaken by all K-Pop groups until attaining a certain success), it’s hard to imagine any personal barriers remain. “There isn’t really any awkwardness between us since we’ve been together for at least six to seven years, starting from training,” they agree. “We’re like a family where one can seek comfort and support. We spend more and more time together, we understand each other better, and that helps strengthen our bond, which creates great synergy on stage. As you said, we're all around our mid-20s and we think we’ve become manlier compared to our debut. What do you think? No?” they tease. “We think this album and ‘Monster’ is perfect to show the matured and manly side of EXO!”

With each member occupied with creative side projects, they admit to feeling “lucky to have opportunities” to be exposed to “different elements which are exciting, but also make us feel the weight and responsibility in what we are doing (with EXO) at the same time.” Sitting down one on one, although facing hectic schedules, they explain the EXO world and their personal hopes and dreams.


You act and sing under different names, but what qualities have you developed as EXO’s Suho that you bring to your acting?

Suho: I would say ‘responsibility’. Being EXO’s leader, I learned to be more responsible and listen carefully to what the members would like to say in order to mediate and lead. This really helped me a lot when acting as I become responsible for the character from the very beginning to the end, and I also have to pay close attention to the other characters in order to create balance.

And how has being recognized as an artist under your birth name, Kim Junmyeon, contributed to being EXO’s Suho in 2016?

Suho: Although I only started acting recently, I’ve learned that actors analyse characters and bring them into life not only with lines but with actions, facial expressions and many other elements. Singers also interpret and sing with appropriate emotions and create suitable performances, but because singers have a shorter time on stage, I was always concerned on how to express those best. Through acting, I’ve learned to express myself more freely, diversely, and also to communicate with the fans better, which helps me enjoy the stage more.


D.O, you mentioned that you'd love to play a heartless character in a noir film. Characters like that are often lonely, cold and immoral – would you be excited or fearful of immersing yourself in such a role?

D.O: I don’t have any fear but rather think it would be exciting and fun. I believe there are other sides inside of me that haven't been shown yet, which I don’t even know about, so I hope to explore various sides of myself by acting (these) different characters.

What’s your know-how on bringing a character to life and having an audience relate so easily?

D.O: I wouldn’t say it’s a special know-how of mine to act the character naturally, but one thing I try to do is to actually become the character during the filming period. I know it's not an easy task to be fully immersed and try to live it in real life but, at the same time, I think it’s the most important thing in order to understand the character. So I try to focus and concentrate on that as much as possible.


Lay, you’ve had a busy year with music, filming, travelling between Korea and China, and writing your autobiography, Standing Firm At 24. Firstly, how do you find balance between different aspects of work and personal time?

Lay: Actually, I don’t try to balance between work and personal time. If I try to, I can’t to do either one properly. So I tend not to make things complicated and just focus on one or the other. As you said, I lived a busy year so didn’t have a lot of time to rest, but was thankful that I had the chance to try various experiences. Since it’s what I desire to do I enjoy every moment, although it might be physically tiring sometimes!

How do you relax, or switch off?

Lay: I recharge by working on the songs I’d like to present to the fans. It really feels great when I see them enjoying songs I worked hard on, which gives me the strength and energy to keep going. That’s why I want to keep expanding my career into other fields and show a variety of music in the future.


Sehun, fans fondly called you the “bratty maknae” (the maknae is a group’s youngest member) in the early days for your cheeky self-confidence. Looking back, can you find significant milestones in your transition to turning 23?

Sehun: Did the fans call me the ‘bratty maknae’? (laughs) I guess it’s probably because I got along well with the older members as a friend... I maintained etiquette though! I played and joked a lot, but the relationship was very comfortable. Now I try to be a more ‘mature maknae’ since I was still a minor when EXO debuted. So rather than saying there was a specific milestone, I believe every moment I experienced as a member of EXO were all significant milestones.

How do think you've changed, both in EXO and personally? And what aspects of Oh Sehun haven’t changed at all?

Sehun: I think I became more responsible and mature as both a member of EXO and a person, and I’m also trying to show various parts of me not only as a singer but also as an actor and in other possible fields. Although it’s quite embarrassing to put this in words, how I feel for the members luckily hasn’t changed and won't in the future either!


Baekhyun, you’re fearless when it comes to performing but also outside EXO, from musicals like Singin’ In The Rain to horse-riding training for the historical drama Moon Lovers...

Baekhyun: Yes, that’s true! I have a lot of interest and passion in constantly challenging myself, so I don’t have much fear when it comes to trying new things. I know that the experiences I’ll gain will definitely help me, maybe not right now but one day in the future. That’s why I always try to fully absorb and enjoy what I’m learning.

When you think to the future, what worries you? And is there a specific challenge you've set yourself?

Baekhyun: This might be an unexpected answer, but when I think about the future, the only thing that I worry about is my health! (laughs) I don’t worry about my popularity or career ending as a singer because I believe that depends on how much I continuously develop myself. However, health is something that can't be maintained just by putting effort into it, and I have to stay healthy in order to expand my career. My goal is to be remembered as Baekhyun of EXO, but not just as a singer and to achieve that I’m always trying to invest time on learning new things in diverse fields.


Kai, your solo dances at EXO shows are always high points... what goes through your mind mid-performance? Can you hear the audience or only the music?  

Kai: It’s really different each time. When I have to show detailed emotions during a solo, I wear in-ear earphones and set the volume at the maximum in order to focus only on the music and nothing else, so I can fully immerse myself. However, during (group) performances I like to enjoy and communicate with the members and fans, I listen to the crowd and feel the moment. Not many things run inside my head when I’m actually performing! Most of the thinking happens when designing and practicing the choreography and that’s when I think about the overall flow and emotions, the key points of each movement, and how to present them.

So is it more base and emotional then, being so focused and connected to your body?

Kai: I simply let myself go with the emotion, atmosphere, and music. Just like a song, choreography also has a story, and I believe the audience connects with the performance when everything comes together as one. I guess, similarly, I don’t feel any special or particular emotion at the height of the performance, I try to maintain the emotion throughout. But I am satisfied and happy when I've delivered the story I wanted to tell.


The EXO effect hasn’t slowed – #1 on Forbes Korea Power Celebrity List 2016, sellout concerts, advertising deals, the devoted fanbase. All of this brings pressure and expectation – how do you deal with it, Xiumin?

Xiumin: We all do our best to show improvement instead of regression, to surpass our own limits every time we prepare a new project. It’s true that puts us under pressure but I think it’s our job to constantly challenge ourselves. We practice a lot to prepare a new album, but also discuss with the company about selecting songs, deciding concepts and promotions in order to present the new album the best way we can. So, please, keep supporting us! (laughs)

How do you balance between the life of a celebrity and your private moments?

Xiumin: Honestly, it's not easy to balance between the celebrity life and private life as it naturally gets exposed although it’s ‘private’ because we are celebrities. So instead of being sensitive about it and finding a way to separate one from the other, I try not to get stressed about it. But as a celebrity, where many, especially young people, are watching, I try to be more responsible in my words and actions.


EXO consistently has amazing concepts but, out of all the videos, which has held the most meaning for you?  

Chen: I would have to say ‘MAMA’ is the most meaningful music video for me so far. With ‘What Is Love’, ‘History’, and ‘MAMA’, we were able to introduce our music to the public, but especially as 'MAMA' was our official debut, this ‘first’ is really meaningful and can’t be compared with anything else.

And, in your eyes, which is the most aesthetically pleasing?

Chen: ‘Lucky One’! We always want to show new sides of EXO through music, style, and performances for each album and also try various things with our music videos as well. I personally think ‘Lucky One’ showed these attempts well; the concept was really new and fresh, different camera movements and techniques were used, and the overall tone and visual came out so beautifully.


Chanyeol, you're building songwriting credits, and on EX'ACT you had a hand in creating “Heaven”. If you could choose to work with anyone on a solo album, who would it be?

Chanyeol: There are many artists I would love to work with if I ever have a chance! I've been listening to various jazz hip hop and electronic music lately, now I’m really into jazz and listening to a lot of Jamie Cullum’s songs. I've always been a huge fan and recently attended the Seoul Jazz Festival 2016 and was lucky to watch him perform, which made me fall for his music again. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the chance, but it would be a great honor to work with Jamie or perform on stage with him. I believe I’d be able to learn a lot from the experience by just doing something, anything, with him! To make this dream come true, I will keep studying and learning music to develop myself!