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Hyukoh in Seoul, 2017
Hyukoh in Seoul, 2017Courtesy Hyukoh

Oh Hyuk is the indie rock frontman giving voice to disaffected Korean youth

A thoughtful conversation with the singer of the band Hyukoh about the ‘Sampo Generation’, writing in English, and collaborating with CIFIKA

With his soft cadence and unassuming presence, you’d be surprised to hear that Oh Hyuk is the frontman of a band at the epicentre of South Korea’s resurgent indie rock movement. But fame was never Oh’s objective, and success was never going to go to his head. “The music I write is more of a personal thing,” he says. “I talk about my struggles, and they happen to be shared by everyone.”

Before their track “Comes and Goes” tore through Korea’s music charts, claiming the top spot from staple pop favourites such as Big Bang and Girls’ Generation, Oh and his band, Hyukoh (who featured on this year’s Dazed 100), were strictly an indie act; a regular fixture in the Mecca of Seoul’s indie music scene, Hongdae. An appearance on the variety show Infinite Challenge changed all of that, making their music a pop culture cynosure. Soothing, minimal tracks like “Mer” capture the main characteristics of Hyukoh’s music, with Oh Hyuk’s raw, crooning vocals, backed up by shoegaze-inspired tracks.

Hyukoh arrived at a time of widespread disillusionment and youth unemployment in South Korea, putting the fears of a precarious generation into words. This ‘Sampo Generation’ found refuge in Oh’s unapologetic dismissal of the expectations of a perfectionist society, not just in his lyrics, but down to the band’s pierced-lip, tattooed visual aesthetic. They were an anomaly, creating a special enclave of relatable music in a label-driven music industry. Going by their position in the top ten of the Billboard World Albums Chart in 2015, people agreed.

Talking over the phone from Chicago almost three years later, however, Oh Hyuk – or OH, as he prefers to be called – doesn’t think much of it: “It was so long ago,” he says. “I can’t really remember.” He’s atypically self-aware for a newly minted 25-year-old, preferring not to dwell in the past. He grounds himself, instead, in philosophical concepts of equivalent exchange and yin and yang, pouring out his observations into his writing. He’s also prone to measuring his words – at one point, when he pauses for a long time, his agent, who is translating for us, says in a sing-song voice: “He’s thinking.”  

During our conversation, I jokingly ask Oh Hyuk whether anyone had ever told him that his music might be considered too morbid for his age – for instance, the track “Skyworld”, from the band’s latest album 24: How To Find True Love and Happiness, talks about lost innocence and death to the tempo of a nursery rhyme. It elicits a soft laugh from him, and when he answers with a simple “always”, his sheepishness peeking out from under his characteristic thoughtfulness. His agent is more liberal with his descriptions, calling him an “old soul in a young man’s body”.

Here, Oh dives into the philosophy of Hyukoh and their music, their future plans, the side effects of fame, and why they will never be able to make music for the sake of it.

You said that your latest album, How to Find True Love and Happiness, is about growing up, but it’s quite dark. Did you set out to produce an album that talked about the parts of growing up that we don’t particularly like?

Oh Hyuk: It is all really simple in a way: I think there is only one and zero in this world. I think every direction is either one or zero. In a way, we are all dying or learning and growing. In that sense, because there is only one or zero, either/or, I think the dark side is always there for every topic, and I think every single one of us shares and always has those two sides. I think that’s the way we learn.

Your albums have always been named after the age that you release it at. Is there anything in particular that you learnt at 24 that made you think: “This is the right time to put out such music”? 

Oh Hyuk: I don’t think there is a certain right time to talk about certain topics. I think it all differs, but for me, putting the corresponding title to age for an album is more of a personal thing. It’s more about keeping a record, keeping an archive, like a memoir. It would mean that when I look back, I would say that: “Oh, this was the topic or the theme that I thought about at this age”. And for the people, for the public, I think that age is a certain topic that gets under people’s skin more easily.

So you treat the songs on an album like a diary of experiences and thoughts that go through your head? 

Oh Hyuk: In a way, (the album is) a diary. In a way, there are some that are my experiences, but for some (songs), it is my observation of others. What I see from people around me and the world around me.

In contrast to your previous works, How to Find True Love and Happiness is almost entirely in English. What made you decide to take that direction?

Oh Hyuk: When I write songs, I decide the lyrics and the language by how it sounds with the melody and how it sounds with the songs. To me, the songs that are in 24, the latest album, it just sounded right with English lyrics.

I also want to talk about “Gang Gang Schiele”. I’m taking that example in particular because it was very subdued, very different from the polished aesthetic of “Wanli” and “Gondry”. One, was that shot all in one take? Second, why this kind of visual aesthetic for 24

Oh Hyuk: The music video for “Gang Gang Schiele” was not like an ‘official’ video. It was shot in a park around my house. One day, I was just walking, and it seemed like the tunnel just didn’t end. And I thought it would be a good location to shoot something fun for “Gang Gang Schiele”, and yes, it was all one take. 

Let’s talk about your collaboration with CIFIKA earlier this year, “MOMOM”. It was very different to your usual style, because CIFIKA is an electronic artist. How did that happen?

Oh Hyuk: (When) I got in touch from CIFIKA, I wasn’t really aware of her music. I got to listen to it, and I thought it was really fun, so it will be (sic) a fun collaboration. It actually took longer than I thought, working on that music. It took us almost a year to put that out.

Since you and CIFIKA have very different styles, where was the middle ground? How did you find the kind of melody that worked for both of you?

Oh Hyuk: As far as the melody, it came as a coincidence; it came out of chance. But for me, I have a standard for doing collaborations, which is that there needs to be work that I can do, and certain parts that I can be responsible for. So, I think working with someone who has different genres, different music styles, someone who is totally different than me, I think it makes more sense for my standard of doing a collaboration. 

“I tried writing something that would please the audiences, but I found out that there is no point in it, so I kind of gave up. Now, I’m just going to write whatever I like” – Oh Hyuk, Hyukoh

The song, “MOMOM”, drew a lot on pop culture and our internet savvy lives. What’s your relationship with social media like? 

Oh Hyuk: (Laughs) I don’t go on social media when I’m resting, but I’m bored, yes. 

HYUKOH’s music is often considered representative of what’s known as the Sampo Generation. It’s regarded as descriptive of the struggles of the youth, not just in Korea but also in other parts of the world. Do you and the band see that as a responsibility? Are you always conscious of that fact in the back of your mind? 

Oh Hyuk: I try not to be very conscious about or keeping in mind the responsibility of representing certain generations. I don’t think I wrote my music in order to represent them. I happen to be included in the ‘Sampo Generation’. I am that age, but the music I write is more of a personal thing. I talk about my struggles and it happens to be shared by everyone. So, to myself and my thoughts, I wouldn’t say that I’m representing the ‘Sampo Generation’, and I don’t think the band is trying to do the same either.

Speaking of the band and your music production, you’ve said before that you want HYUKOH to keep up with the music industry, since it moves very fast. Why does that worry you? One would say that because your music exists in a different sphere, it might not be bound by the same time constraints.

Oh Hyuk: I think it’s because the way people consume music has changed. I agree that good music always survives, with no time limits. Good music is good music, but at the same time, the pattern of how people consume music has changed. I think I’m trying to keep up with that taste, that pattern. But at the same time, I’m not going to negotiate or fit in music of the quality that people are consuming. I’m trying to keep the quality (of my music) according to my standards, but keep up with the pattern.

Do you think it’s a side effect of your fame that you have to worry about this? Fame sort of happened overnight for you after the appearance on Infinite Challenge. Before that, you were a thoroughly indie act. Would you think it would have been different if you’d stayed under the radar? 

Oh Hyuk: (Long pause) I really don’t know how to answer this question. Music-wise, how I work, it might have been different from what I do now, but I’m not sure, because I haven’t been there. 

It’s kind of like what you said, you know, about choices. 

Oh Hyuk: It is indeed. It was kind of an overnight difference, and it was a big difference in our experience. There were definitely changes that happened to me with the fame, but it was actually three years ago, and I can’t really remember. I guess humans adapt really fast. 

Speaking of adapting, have you taken to showmanship yet? You say that you’re not made for variety shows. Are you used to them yet or still trying to stay away? 

Oh Hyuk: (Laughs) Despite how humans can adapt and change, there are certain things that never change. 

I am curious what your experience was like, then. You started as an indie act in Korea. How was that time different to, let’s say, after Infinite Challenge?

Oh Hyuk: I think the main difference that I felt coming from the really indie rock to somewhat major, somewhat exposed, and somewhat in the broader public sense is that in the beginning, I wasn’t aware of any responsibilities. The things I said or did, or the music I wrote, I didn’t notice the responsibility about it. After the exposure, I got to know that there are certain consequences and certain responsibilities that I need to take for every action, every word. 

How do you feel about that? It sounds like earlier you were making music very freely. Now that you know that there are consequences attached to it, does it colour the process itself?

Oh Hyuk: Working on 23 was the time right after Infinite Challenge. It took longer than before. I had to go through a lot of thoughts, a lot of struggles in order to produce that album. In a way, I found that trying to please the listeners is too broad a spectrum that I cannot actually meet or see. I tried writing something that would please the audiences, but I found out that there is no point in it, so I kind of gave up. Now, I’m just going to write whatever I like. 

2018 has been good to Korean rock. We’ve had more acts cropping up and going on tour. Do you think that this, or the coming year, would be the year that Korean rock shakes off the ‘subculture’ label?

Oh Hyuk: (Shaking head) I wouldn’t say I could analyse a certain country, but as far as the market goes, I think it still needs more time to adapt or appreciate and get to know various cultures. It would take more time for diversity.