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CIX
CIXCourtesy of C9 Entertainment

Behind K-pop’s curtain with CIX, the idol rookies set on breaking through

We spend three days in Seoul with the five-piece group as they ready their second EP

EPISODE ONE: HELLO...

The night air is unusually warm for late October. Inside C9 Entertainment’s rehearsal room, in the Mapo district of western Seoul, there are no windows, nor clocks. Two walls of mirrors reflect seven young men: five members of rookie idol group CIX, as well as the choreography duo, Just Jerk. They’re going through the routine for their new single, “NUMB”, a song that’s aggressively upbeat, but paired with a bleak outlook on the loss of childhood, adult apathy, and Korean schooling. “One, two, three, four, and five, and six, and seven – and eight!” one dancer shouts, enthusiasm rising as sneakers squeak on the polished floor.

The dance looks both ridiculously easy, and utterly impossible. The youngest and tallest member, Hyunsuk, aged 18, and Yonghee, 19, whose gentle features are framed by chocolate brown hair, have a minor collision, but don’t stop. Sweat slides down their cheeks. “When we’re on-stage, every little movement and expression is important,” says CIX’s leader, 21-year-old BX. “I’ve learned how precious every moment of it is. We want to be a group that our fans are more and more proud of.”

That’s a sentiment that’s often heard in K-pop, especially from new groups who can face uphill battles to establish the diehard fanbase that’s necessary to survive in a crowded industry. CIX are at something of an advantage, given that one of their members, 19-year-old Bae Jinyoung, was previously popular in the temporary group WANNA ONE, but this doesn’t mean that success today is guaranteed. To build their audience, they’ve tried to be as productive as possible: they released their debut EP, HELLO Chapter 1: Hello, Stranger, in July, and a Japanese single, “My New World”, in October while in preparations for the new EP, HELLO Chapter 2: Hello, Strange Place, for release on November 19. “It’s true that it’s really a tight schedule and we lose sleep, but when we see the finished product, we get a lot of strength from that,” BX says. They’re currently racing to finish HELLO Chapter 2, film the music video, and put together five episodic trailers that address issues facing young Koreans, like bullying, educational pressure, and suicide – topics also woven through the EP’s lyrics. 

In the rehearsal room, the group take one-minute breaks to stretch, check their phones and gulp down Powerade. An extra dance move is incorporated but they look like chicklets trying to fly and Jinyoung gets the giggles. Mint green-haired Seunghun, 20, has a sudden idea to change a section of a formation by placing Hyunsuk further up front with him and everyone is happy to try it out. The members’ input is, apparently, more than welcomed.

“We listen to the song amongst ourselves first,” Jinyoung explains. He often hmmms and haws then falls silent before answering a question, gazing at nothing in particular. It takes some getting used to. “We try to find the right movement and atmosphere. The choreographers show us what they made, and if it’s not what we thought, we’re careful to re-choreograph it and ask them what they think. If they’re OK, we’ll use it. Sometimes we’ll change it and use something better or mix it up.” 

Though they’ve been in this dance rehearsal for hours, when the music starts their tiredness falls away like a switch being flipped. Seunghun, forthcoming and quick to smile, dances so hard his cap flies off, skidding into a mirror. When I leave them to carry on, he cheekily shouts, “I love you!”

EPISODE TWO: THE SCREEN IN FRONT

Yonghee’s shirt cuff is soaked with fake blood. He’s playing a character who cuts his wrist upon seeing the results of an exam paper. Jinyoung, whose character is trying to stop him, slams Yonghee against lockers in a classroom full of uniform-clad extras – you can hear his bones take the impact. In the school’s corridor, high atop a hill in Yongsan where they’re filming the first trailer, CIX’s posse of stylists, make-up artists, hairdressers, and managers watch on the monitors and visibly flinch at every take. 

Yonghee, whose character is consumed by depression, seems perfectly at ease in front of the camera, bringing a fragile lightness to a difficult role. In school, he says, “I thought I might want to become an actor and looked at secondary schools where I could learn about it.” Instead, he joined C9 Entertainment – although he hasn’t ruled out acting in the future. While watching back their performance, staff fuss around him parentally. He’s fine, a few bumps here and there, but Jinyoung is contrite. He didn’t enjoy throwing his bandmate about. “My heart hurt doing it,” he says.

BX arrives halfway through the day, his bag adorned with dangling figurines (Buzz Lightyear, a green dinosaur, a duck in a pink onesie). He watches Jinyoung and Yonghee with wide eyes. “Their acting is very realistic,” he opines. His role is the ‘bystander’, a person who sees Yonghee being violently bullied and chooses to do nothing – a song of the same name appears on Hello, Strange Place. His day doesn’t end up finishishing until 1.30am. Later, he admits he hadn’t rehearsed because “it was my first time acting, and I felt it would’ve been more awkward if I’d practised!” He smiles. “The director said it wasn’t bad.” BX is CIX’s eldest member and a solid, stabilising presence whose method of leadership is “to talk a lot with the members. Communication is the key.”

EPISODE THREE: THE REALITY BEHIND

BX and Seunghun are former trainees for YG Entertainment, one of K-pop’s major entertainment companies. BX competed in their 2017 survival show MIXNINE, which was designed to create a male and a female group who would both debut. He made it through, only to see the entire project cancelled over contractual issues between YG and the fourteen other agencies whose trainees made the winning groups. He tried again on another YG show, Treasure Box, along with Seunghun, but both were knocked out. For Seunghun, who began idol training aged ten, it was a heavy blow. “Because I was a trainee for such a long time, thoughts of ‘Why am I doing this?’ were constant. But after a lot of hard thinking, this was still the road I wanted to take, and that’s how I ended up here.”

They both left YG and joined C9. CIX stands for ‘Complete in X’, ‘Complete in Unknown’, or ‘Complete in Uncertainties’, all of which hold meaning for them. “We have positives, but also aspects where we’re lacking,” BX explains. “An uncertainty means, for example, Jinyoung is really shy despite his experience. But, on the flipside, Hyunsuk is really outgoing. We fill all the missing parts of each other.”

Seunghun films his trailer in the witching hours. He sees his mother hit by Yonghee’s mother’s car as she speeds to save her own son, and cradles the actress in a pool of blood, crying for help. They’re not the first K-pop group to tackle social issues but, especially following former idol Sulli’s death by suicide in October, the conversation feels particularly vital, with people in the industry asking how this discussion can be continued, and what change can come from it.

Seunghun points out that “the stories portrayed are experiences that the members have experienced directly or indirectly at some point”, but they don’t delve into personal details. The episodes are an outward-facing mirror, reflecting, embracing, and challenging all who look upon them, rather than portraying or deconstructing CIX as individuals. “Our debut was about the bigger picture, showing our music and colour as a group,” adds Hyunsuk. “These big and small issues are ones our generation are going through. Because of that, we wanted to create awareness in our own way.”

EPISODE FOUR: THE MAN UNDERNEATH

Jinyoung’s character, as he puts it in English, is “king of the school”. Just as he was the first and central piece in CIX’s creation, he’s also the trigger in their new trailers, setting off the stories’ butterfly effect. He fits the role of a cold, impatient perfectionist because, to an outsider, Bae Jinyoung – a quiet, pensive person who finds a corner to practice dancing during filming – could be mistaken for such a person himself.

Jinyoung was painfully shy on the survival show Produce 101. “On Produce, everything was so brand new,” he says, adding that as the only C9 trainee, “I was a bit lonely.” He visibly flourished in its winning group, WANNA ONE, but even now he’s still lacking in confidence. He decided against a solo career after W1’s disbandment, preferring to join a group where “I have an opportunity to show parts of myself from the past and parts from the present.”

Behind his austere front, however, there exists a whole other Jinyoung – one who’s droll and playfully headstrong. Ask who CIX’s best actor is and he deadpans “me”, then smiles to himself. When he’s done practicing, his make-up running and once-pristine white shirt soaked with sweat, his expression is as neutral as ever, but there’s a little gleam in his eye, a feline-like pleasure of pushing the boundaries. The glam squad exchange theatrical glances upon seeing him. Unruffled, they debate covering the sweat marks with a blazer.

EPISODE FIVE: FROM THEN UNTIL NOW

It’s not particularly late in a studio in Nonhyeon-dong on our final evening together, but CIX are exhausted, having spent the day in the recording studio immediately after the previous evening’s post-midnight finish. BX, shadows under his eyes, is laying down his rap for the heavy trap cut of “REWIND”, tirelessly trying out different tones and inflections. Seunghun has already done three hours in the booth, but will go in again later, becoming frustrated that he cannot land his lines the way their producer wants. “I have a solid voice so I’m OK,” he says, touching his throat. Jinyoung is falling asleep against Seunghun’s shoulder. Their personalities are chalk and cheese, but they gravitate towards each other.

“My belief is that opposites attract, and when they’re so opposite, they’re able to stay close,” says Seunghun. “That’s why Jinyoung and I get on well. But we’re also a team that were brought together not long ago, so we try to be understanding and meet each other’s needs by being selfless.”

They’ve managed to do so by starting on common ground. “When we first met, I asked our CEO if we could gather as a group and talk,” says Jinyoung, sleepily. “All five of us came together because this one dream, and that’s what has lead us on the right path until now.” 

The “right” path, however, isn’t always a level one. Having had only 18 months of idol training before joining CIX, Yonghee is the least experienced. “There was a difference in abilities,” Yonghee explains. “My objective now is to catch up, so I stay later and practice more to fill that gap. Whenever the members have time, they’re always giving me tips. I’m definitely hard on myself. When I make a mistake, I ask myself why I made it and how do I perfect it so I don’t do it again.” Hyunsuk nods: “It’s similar for me. I feel pressured to overcome any mistakes, and I practise even harder.”

Hyunsuk, called a “savage maknae” by fans for his sassy ability to wind up his bandmates (‘maknae’ refers to the youngest member of a group), recalls his emotions during CIX’s debut. “I was surprised by how nervous I was on stage at the first showcase,” he says. He mimics the wild thumping of his heart. “More than I thought I could be. And I was surprised by the love we received. I thought, ‘Is this even possible?’” Does this mean they’re getting recognised in public now? BX blinks. “We don’t have the opportunity to go out. We practice all day, every day,” he replies flatly, capturing the bunker-like life that idols face in order to fulfil their stage dreams. 

The night wears on and they become a languid heap of sportswear and sweaters that ward off blasts of air-conditioning. The K-pop industry is changing – there’s a renewed pull towards breaking America, and groups are releasing more music per year. The relentless creation of content is simply part of the job. “There’s a sense that we have to meet these standards,” admits Jinyoung, “but we really enjoy meeting the fans and public and, because of that, we’re constantly trying to lift each other up (when the workload gets tough).”

A delivery of pizza, sugary drinks, crisps, and sweets brings them back to life. Faces brighten, conversation quickens and limbs unfurl. CIX know the stakes are high for all K-pop groups. The rewards can be momentous, but the risk of failure lurks behind every album release, and there are dozens of idols ready to take their place. But CIX, says Jinyoung, aren’t about competing with others – only with themselves. 

“What’s important is that CIX succeeds,” he says, pushing his hair out from over his eyes. “I do feel we can be that group. A goal is that we come back a better, cooler group, with more impact on the public, and that our second album leaves an imprint. We respect and look up to all the various K-pop artists. We’re still new, so I feel like we still have so much to learn. We must learn.”