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Meet the 13-member boy group making K-pop history

SEVENTEEN debuted just two years ago, but the multi-faceted, multi-national band have already won big with the critics and dominated the charts

When 13-member K-pop group SEVENTEEN’s new mini-album A|1 became one of the top ten highest-selling first-week albums for a boy group, it was easy to wonder just when the hell the band – who only debuted in May 2015 – had become a real contender. But the multi-national group, comprised of nine Koreans, two Chinese and two Korean-Americans, have been killing it from the start: their deliriously upbeat singles have already scored a number of prestigious music awards including a Mama and two Seoul Music Awards, they choreograph many of their own tracks and write their own lyrics, and 20-year-old Woozi (real name Lee Jihoon) has become a powerhouse songwriter, having co-written almost of all of the songs that SEVENTEEN have released so far.

SEVENTEEN perform both as one team (all with vocal and dance abilities) and as three units dedicated to the members’ individual strengths: ‘hip hop’ (S.Coups, Vernon, Wonwoo and Mingyu), ‘vocal’ (Seungkwan, Jeonghan, Joshua, Dokyeom and Woozi), and ‘performance’ (Dino, Jun, The8 and Hoshi). Originally envisaged as a 17-member band that would debut in 2013, the group’s label Pledis instead began streaming Seventeen TV, following the lives of 11 trainees to build an early fanbase. Seventeen TV lasted for five seasons, with a revolving door of potential members appearing before they officially debuted with the bouncy funk-lite of “Adore U”.

Their calling card went on to become the brassy, upbeat tempos seen in “Boom Boom”, “Mansae”, and the braces-snapping, confetti-exploding “Very Nice”, where their personalities crackled right through the screen. Yet from their first mini-album 17 Carat onwards, theirs has been a tricky balancing act – each album is eclectic, from straightforward pop with retro sensibilities to acoustic ballads and pop/hip hop hybrids, to allow each subunit a chance to shine while simultaneously pushing on and maintaining the parameters of SEVENTEEN as a singular team.

It’s a little astounding to see how fast those transitions have been refined and their sound diversified upon, with A|1 – their fifth release in two years – picking up where 2016’s album track “Highlight” left off and creating a wholly realised foray into dance. Led by curveball single “Don’t Wanna Cry” (an emotionally resonant foray into western EDM with delicate and impassioned vocals warmed by their ad-libs and some graceful production), its six tracks hang together flawlessly. All of the songs can stand alone, from the trop-house of “My/I” (the first-ever showcase of the group’s so-called China Line, Jun and The8) to an undercurrent of soulful house on “Crazy in Love”. Even the one ballad, an updated take on 90s R&B, uses its sentiment and pre-chorus to fit seamlessly amongst its peers. We managed to catch them during their hectic schedule (where they recently nabbed their third win on South Korea’s competitive and powerful music chart shows) to talk musical progression, success, independence and hitting that two-year anniversary mark.

On first play, A|1 feels very different to your previous albums, but now it seems a natural, mature and very assured progression. How do you see it compared to your back catalogue?

S.Coups: I think this album is filled with songs that show more of our emotions compared to our past albums. So I think more people will be able to relate, which will allow listeners to really feel SEVENTEEN’s diversity.

Woozi: Honestly, when you look at it superficially, many people may think this album is very different, but it was based on growth and (in some ways) it’s not any different from our past releases – SEVENTEEN’s witty and refreshing lyrics in the title and throughout the album are still very present, and our colour isn’t missing from Al1, but it’s deeper. Al1 is filled with music that shows the infinite possibilities of SEVENTEEN, which will be developed further in the future.

Hoshi: While working on this album I really was surprised by the possibilities that lay before us. I think this is the album that shows off and presents what we have gathered while regularly producing music and practising. The fact that this album’s concept was so different from our previous releases was certainly something that remained on my mind, but while producing and practising I realised that no matter what kind of music or performance we put on, as long as SEVENTEEN is doing it then we’re just expressing things in our own way with our own twist.

Woozi, ‘Don’t Wanna Cry’ and the album's tracks (apart from ‘Habitual Words’) are heavily house/EDM-based. Have you been wanting to experiment with creating an encompassing vibe like this for some time? Also, you have your personal studio, so have you (or anyone else) given it a name yet?

Woozi: The tracks on this album are definitely the genre and mood that I enjoy and wanted to experiment with. I guess you could say this was the chance to show off some of my hidden talents? That’s why I contemplated more than usual how to make it work with SEVENTEEN. And I haven’t given my private studio a name yet, but everyone calls my studio, which is actually on the second floor of our company office, ‘second floor Woozi’s Room’, or they’ll just call it ‘Woozi’s Room’.

Hoshi, you’ve been involved in the composition of two dance bangers – ‘Highlight’ and ‘Swimming Fool’. Do you record a beat or take an idea to Woozi or Bumzu (SEVENTEEN’s primary producer)? Or do they ask you to join them on specific tracks? You’re also working on your own track, ‘Hurricane’. Because you’ve joked about it in variety shows, it was a surprise to hear you were going to record it properly, so what can you divulge about it?

Hoshi: ‘Highlight’ came about during our Asia tour last year. I had written down how I felt towards our fans and how touched and thankful I was, and after discussing it with the performance team and Bumzu, we were able to have a really fun time producing the track. With ‘Swimming Fool’ I wanted to create a track that was cool and fun and would fit the summer but for ‘Hurricane’, in order to keep expectations high I’m trying to keep it a secret! (laughs)

The 13 trailers for A|1 were beautiful, melancholic and mysterious. Do you enjoy the acting element in videos? Which member of the group do you think does it best?

Dokyum: I tried to show a really sad side of me in this video, and I feel like all of the members practised hard in order to show off this sad feeling, which is why it probably came out really natural. All 13 of us did really well in focusing on what we were doing, so it’s hard to pick one specific member. Everyone was super-good!

Joshua: I think our acting was really natural because the director was really great at pulling out emotions from us in a really relaxed way. But still, acting in itself was hard. I think Jun was the most comfortable and had the most fun because he’s the one with the most experience when it comes to acting.

“We never thought we would receive this much love” – Seungkwan, SEVENTEEN

Dino, while you guys were in LA filming ‘Don’t Wanna Cry’, SEVENTEEN took choreography classes at the famed Millennium Dance Complex. As a performance team member, you must have been pretty happy to have this opportunity. What was your favourite part of the experience?

Dino: We were able to go where some of the world’s most renowned dancers practise and learn very different dances, but what I really liked was that we got to understand about the process of learning dance, as well as being in a very relaxed atmosphere. There are so many great memories, but what I remember most is the other students we studied with. The way they express themselves in dance was just so different than us that we learned a lot from them.

Jun, let’s discuss the ‘My/I’ duet with The8. How did this come about? And what was your reaction to the song being included on the album’s final cut?

Jun: We first started working on ‘My/I’ in order for The8 and I to practise our Korean pronunciation, but the song came out better than expected and it was placed on this album. I’m extremely amazed, I want to study Korean harder so I can challenge myself in writing another song.

The8, you and Jun wrote the lyrics to ‘My/I’ in Mandarin which was translated into Korean, right? Was there any difficulty? What was the story or meaning behind them, because they feel a little sad.

The8: I originally wrote the lyrics in Chinese and Bumzu helped me translate them. It took about two days to write, and Jun helped me on the side. Honestly, there was nothing sad about writing the song, it was actually really fun. I was touched by a movie I saw and inspired by that. I thought about how a future, successful version of myself was waiting for my current self. I put faith in the fact that, if I continue to strive to do my best, one day I really will meet that successful version, and that was the feeling I wanted to portray through this song.

You have a lot of independence as artists because all of you are heavily involved in your music/performance. What are the advantages of this and when does it feel difficult?

S.Coups: The fact that we self-produce allows more time for the members to talk to each other more, and through those interactions we’re able to develop this great teamwork that represents SEVENTEEN. The members are so great about following through with what we decide on that it doesn’t feel hard at all.

Because you’ve been with your members for such a long time, how does it feel when you’re away from them? How long before you have to message or call someone?

Jeonghan: Of course we feel a bit empty when we’re apart because we’re always together normally, but it still feels like we’re together because we video-call, voice-call and message non-stop.

With so many members being street-cast rather than auditioning traditionally, who took some time to make their decision to join and who said yes straight away? And whose parents were happy or more reluctant to allow you to start training?

Jeonghan: In my case both my parents and I immediately said yes, and everyone around me was really happy for me.

Mingyu: I thought about it for a long time. I was still young but I still worried about becoming a trainee and being able to get through successfully. I thought about it quite a lot actually.

Seungkwan: My parents were very quick in allowing me to be cast as a trainee and happy, as was I.

Vernon: My parents said that they saw me entering this line of work while watching me grow up. They didn’t know the details behind what kind of work I would do, but they knew it would be in this industry and they were happier about it than any other person.

This album looks to become SEVENTEEN’s most successful release and was among the biggest-ever first-week albums for a boy band. How do you feel about that achievement? Did you quietly feel like this album would be well received?

Seungkwan: We never thought we would receive this much love. But while preparing this album the members all did their best in participating and having constant meetings about it, and thinking about it with our company staff too. I think that’s why we probably had a bit more expectation. I really want to say that everyone involved really did go above and beyond.

“My parents said that they saw me entering this line of work while watching me grow up... they knew it would be in this industry” – Vernon, SEVENTEEN

A remastered version of ‘Check In’ (a subunit release from the hip hop team) has been included on A|1 – were you unsatisfied with the original? And lyrically, you had quite a bit to say about your career and life journey. Can you tell us more about this song?

Wonwoo: ‘Check In’ reflects how we felt during our last Asia tour. It’s a song that was made in order to express to our fans how we felt while visiting various all these different cities.

Mingkyu: We remastered it because we wanted it to have a higher level of completeness compared to the release on the mixtape. As Wonwoo said, ‘Check In’ reflects how we felt on tour, and this song is our way of repaying our fans by showing how thankful we are.

Vernon: ‘Check In’ is the one I like the best of all the songs the hip hop unit has released. It’s a song that squeezed out every single little emotion and thought we had been feeling during that time, and I want to be able to make a lot more songs like this in the future.

SEVENTEEN has recently had a two-year anniversary. Looking at yourself, how do you think you’re different from your debut to now? And in a broader sense, how do you see the team changing as well?

Dokyeom: As time goes by we feel more responsibility towards our performances and the need to become artists that our fans are proud of. I personally think I really improved in being able to express the feeling of the song while performing. I think about how to show a better version of myself a lot, and believe these little details help me grow. All 13 members really grew internally, and we’ll try our best to show better performances and versions of ourselves.

Vernon, on ‘유행가 (Popular Song)’, your lines ran I know I’m not the best rapper, I’m not good at delivering words. Since recording that last year have your feelings towards yourself changed?

Vernon: When I think about it, I don’t think I’ve changed much since then. The line that follows that is ‘But I got that something baby, I don’t want to throw it out lightly’ – I think from a young age I knew that I had a very distinctive personality, and now I have faith in that individuality. So I think about how to better show that individuality.

Joshua, although you trained for two years, what sticks out as something that you were surprised by or not ready for once SEVENTEEN were immersed in debut promotions?

Joshua: Rather than not being ready, I would say I lacked in facial expressions. In order to overcome that I practiSed my expressions in a mirror a lot!

Mingyu, you walked a show at Seoul Fashion Week recently – what was that like, especially since your team was in the front row? Did anyone make you watch Zoolander, and would you do it again?

Mingyu: Actually, I watched a lot of videos of runway shows in Paris and Milan. I worried a lot before because I wanted to show a good side of myself when it came to this new venture, but once I got up on the runway it was a lot of fun. I would like to try to earn more experience and better myself if I’m asked to do it again.

Finally, all of the group have SEVENTEEN pinky rings, but which members are the kings of losing or misplacing their rings? 

S. Coups: All the members, including myself, almost never take off our rings, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. So there’s no way to lose the rings or misplace them. I think all of us feel like the rings have become part of us.