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SEVENTEEN on growing into a mature new image

Now out of their teens, the K-pop stars talk about dealing with the pressures of fame, their devotion to their fandom, and saying ‘I love you’ to each other in the group chat

SEVENTEEN, with 13 members, intricate choreography formations, and a sound that pulls as much from brassy musical theatre as it does cinematic synthpop, have slowly but surely become one of K-pop’s most interesting groups. Not just for their constant sonic experiments but for their emotional intelligence and enviable camaraderie, which may or may not be the first thing you notice when sitting opposite them, but it will invariably be what lingers most after meeting S.Coups, Woozi, DK, Hoshi, Vernon, The8, Dino, Joshua, Jun, Seungkwan, Jeonghan, Wonwoo, and Mingyu. Though they’ve been releasing records for six years (they celebrated the milestone on May 26), SEVENTEEN have been a team since 2013, with some members of the group going back as far as school.

This decade of shared history has created an easygoing, voluble dynamic, one that grows increasingly loud and funny, the longer you spend with them. They roast each other mercilessly, high-five their punchlines, and hands will reach over to grab at shoulder blades and knees in an effort to both distract and reassure. Nothing is sacred in a relationship that’s seen everything from teenage squabbles to award-winning highs, but SEVENTEEN’s remarkable bond is inestimable and, indeed, not one to be trifled with.

No longer teenagers, the group’s leader and oldest member, S.Coups, turns 26 in August while the youngest, Dino, is now 22. The key to SEVENTEEN’s ongoing love and friendship, says Mingyu, is empathy and tolerance. “In the beginning we fought and argued a lot but we got to know each other and accept and embrace our differences, and we learned that nothing’s wrong and nobody’s wrong, it’s just that everyone’s different.”

“We say ‘I love you’ to each other in the group chat,” says Hoshi, “but I think Woozi is the only one who’s really reluctant to say he loves us. Sometimes, once in a blue moon, when he says he loves us, it’s really emotional and moving.” Woozi, whose head perked up on hearing his name, laughs rather helplessly, but Hoshi isn’t quite done yet. “I think all of us, except Woozi, are really confident when it comes to confessing love to each other,” he finishes, grinning, leaving SEVENTEEN’s main songwriter speechless.

M Countdown, a weekly South Korean TV music show, recently released a compilation of SEVENTEEN’s many appearances promoting their lead singles. Watched back to back, from their fresh-faced debut with “Adore U” to their latest, “Ready to Love”, it’s not the precision of their performances that’s changed – they’ve been renown for their immaculate synchronicity since day one – but the ease of their presence. There’s a marked difference between the confidence that comes from the hunger to win over an audience, and one which has become ingrained from the stage becoming your truest and most familiar home.

“The thing that’s changed is when the members work they look more professional,” says Seungkwan to murmurs of assent, though there are sputters as he adds, “and they look older than before.” He smiles. “But the thing that hasn’t changed since we were trainees is that we still like food from convenience stores. We still laugh at the silliest things that happened ten years ago and as we built these memories I think our love and friendship for each other has grown. It’s the happiest thing to be in this team.”

From those long-ago trainee years, Hoshi recalls a propensity for SEVENTEEN to use their hour-long dinner break to wolf down their food “in ten minutes, then go outside and play soccer for the rest”, while Seungkwan casts an eye towards fellow power vocalist, DK. “There was a time when we had an evaluation as trainees and DK used to rap,” he says. “He had to memorise some lyrics.” Mingyu cackles, and Hoshi pokes DK who doesn’t bat an eyelid, grinning at this well-worn memory. “He completely forgot the lyrics,” Seungkwan continues, “so he did a freestyle rap but it made no sense at all, so we still tease him for that.”

For all their playfulness, SEVENTEEN are profoundly committed to their work, its evolution, and their fandom, known as CARAT. Their last four Korean releases (including new EP Your Choice) have topped a million sales each. Your Choice also marks their first appearance on the Billboard 200, debuting at #15, an achievement that Vernon says they were “stoked and thankful” for. 

But the gears required to keep a globally successful music act moving don’t ever slow, and there hasn’t been a chance for celebrations. “If we’d had time I think we definitely would have but just between us we were, like, sending each other messages, saying, like, ‘good job’,” says Joshua. Not only are they so busy that we’re required to do this interview in two parts, but this promo period has come with some bumps; after coming into close contact with someone positive with Covid-19, the band postponed their schedule to quarantine, and S.Coups is absent from our second session after taking a tumble that put him on rest and recuperation.

SEVENTEEN calmly take it all in their stride, although, as four-time million-sellers, the stakes around them have never been so high. The group are fully aware that the only acceptable trajectory in the music industry is an upwards one, but when Hoshi says with a laugh that “we don’t really care about numbers and results, we’re just going to try and work our best from where we are”, he sounds neither defiant nor ungrateful but a little fatalistic, and protective of what they’ve created and how far they’ve come. Although reaching, and going beyond, that magic million mark on each record is entirely feasible, the pressure of doing so brings with it a weight that causes Mingyu to focus on what’s most important to SEVENTEEN: their CARATs. “We’ll never think of (selling less than a million) as a failure. It’s part of the pressure and, of course, getting numbers and results is good – but we have to repay the love to fans (so) we’ll focus on that regardless.”

As SEVENTEEN grant Dazed a deeper insight into the process of creating new work as bona fide K-pop superstars, they also look back on what they’ve learned about love and life, and how they gained the ability not to sweat the small stuff.

Your last three releases all became massively successful – what kind of pressure does that create when you’re about to start making a new record? 

S.COUPS: We’re so thankful, first and foremost, to our CARATs – these records and accomplishments are only possible thanks to their love and support. It’d be a lie if we said that there was no pressure because we are aware of the steadily increasing expectations with every new album, but we’re continuously trying to channel (our) worries into something creative. These expectations give us a greater sense of responsibility to create even better music and become artists whose performances can impart positive messages to many people. 

I’ve said this many times before, but our CARATs’ support – as well as their anticipation for our comebacks – continues to shape us in becoming more courageous artists. To know that someone is waiting for you and cheering you on really makes you brave. So we think about them while preparing our albums, working on music or creating choreo. Our CARATs are the ones who give us the courage to try new things, challenge ourselves and open ourselves up through our music. 

SEVENTEEN are no strangers to singing about romantic feelings, love, and heartbreak. How does this ‘Power of Love’ project differ from what you have previously explored on these themes?

VERNON: To explain this difference in one word, it would be ‘growth’. Your Choice contains a more mature take and deepened sentiments on the topic of love. One way we try to show this growth is by widening our perspective and appreciation for what we consider to be love – whether it be romantic, familial or friendship. Being able to recognise and appreciate the diverse forms of love is an important milestone of growing up and maturing. As for the specifics on how the project differs from our previous work, you’ll have to stay tuned for this one. We’ll be returning throughout the year with more music and in new units, so please look forward to it.

MINGYU: In the love songs we released earlier – like “Adore U”, “Mansae” and “Pretty U” – we showed a very youthful and bright image. We clumsily sang of our crushes in a way that was quite representative of guys in their mid-to-late-teens trying to make sense of their affections. If you juxtapose these songs with “Ready to Love” and our side track, “Anyone”, you can really see how we’ve matured in the last six years both lyrically and sonically. Now, we’re more decisive and assertive.

“Ready to Love” is one of the rare SEVENTEEN songs with a high number of co-writers, including BTS and HYBE Labels founder Bang Shi-Hyuk. What can you tell me about this process of collaboration? 

WOOZI: I grew up listening to the music Mr Bang created, so it was a tremendous honour to be able to work with him. “Ready to Love” truly went through the most revisions out of all the songs we’ve worked on (recently). I don’t think this was necessarily because we were working with a lot of different collaborators, but because we were more concerned about addressing this notion of a more matured look at love. SEVENTEEN has been singing about crushes and all its heart-fluttering emotions from a slightly boyish perspective, but we wanted “Ready to Love” to show a more mannish and mature vibe. That’s why we constantly went back and forth on the song’s direction, melody, lyrics – all the factors, really. The final track and our very first guide sound like two completely different songs! As far as I remember, the first guide was far more emotional as the song is trying to talk about love with the overarching theme of its power, so it was more focused on sentimental vibes. As I worked on the music I wanted to add the excitement of love and as we made adjustments, I think it became more passionate.

“Ready to Love” has a deep, driving beat but rather sweet, heart-on-sleeve lyrics. How did these opposing forces influence the performance and storytelling within it?

JOSHUA: Like you said, “Ready to Love” has very sweet and straightforward heart-on-sleeve-lyrics. It basically shows the narrative of (someone) who comes to realise their feelings for someone they’d simply considered a friend before. 

HOSHI: The hard-hitting yet smooth choreo is a sharp contrast to the more romantic lyrics, but I think it brings the song’s narrative to life: we’ve made up our minds to confess to someone we’ve considered a longtime friend. So there was obviously a certain level of realisation and certainty that sparked that decision.

In love songs, the main subject is often another person. But sometimes you can look at them as odes to the self, whether that’s learning to love yourself, or to be kinder and more open. Is there a SEVENTEEN song where you thought, ‘This one feels more about how I see myself’?

 THE8: “Ready to Love”. Since we’ve received so much, I feel that it’s time for me to finally share the love that I have with many more people. So I’m ‘Ready to Love’.

JUN: “Our Dawn Is Hotter Than Day” is quite fitting for me because we usually have a lot (on our) schedules during the day, but we’ll return to our studios to practise at night. So I feel like my dawn is a ‘hotter’, more passionate time than any other.

JEONGHAN: If you listen to a song in a very tired and difficult state and are able to receive comfort and strength from it, you may interpret any song’s message as being directed towards you and begin to introspect. It’s the same way for me as well – I can’t pinpoint just one song that I see as an extension of my relationship with myself, because it really varies depending on the circumstances I’m in. 

WONWOO: Similarly to Jeonghan, I don’t think I can select just one. Even though the world is really big and there are a lot of different people living in it, there are some shared experiences that transcend borders and cultures. The music that we’ve created so far was not meant to be for a specific individual, but rather to serve as a common thread – a shared listening experience – for many people to immerse themselves in and relate to. 

You often talk about artistic and personal growth. Is this growth something you consciously strive for, as an ethos? Or is it an organic process, more relaxed and circumstantial?

WOOZI: Personally, I’m always on the lookout for new production techniques, genres, trends and styles. As a team, we also make a constant and conscious effort to show new sides of ourselves. So sonically, of course, we’re constantly pushing our limits and making new endeavours.

SEUNGKWAN: Constantly trying to show new sides of SEVENTEEN is a priority that’s ingrained in our values as artists. But at the same time, I wouldn’t necessarily say that we’re schooling ourselves. Rather, we push each other very intrinsically and organically through the many discussions and sharing of ideas. So I guess you can say it’s a healthy balance of both.

“When things do get tough or I’m weighed down by something, I think back to our CARATs and all the love that they’ve shown us” – DK

One song on the EP, “Wave”, addresses escaping the pressures of life; people tend to feel that life is more stressful when you’re struggling to rise, but achieving success brings its own challenges. Over the past two years, what have you found yourselves worrying about that you never thought about as rookies? When things get a bit heavy, how do you find that sense of freedom? 

DK: To be completely honest, there’s not much I worry about any more. I try to focus more on the future and what we can do as a team to deliver our lively energy and positivity to more people. When things do get tough or I’m weighed down by something, I think back to our CARATs and all the love that they’ve shown us. Knowing that we’re receiving so much support is encouraging and uplifting beyond words. This realisation allows me to recentre and refocus on preparing better performances and music... My heavy heart is lifted up through our CARATs’ love. 

DINO: In the very beginning, I think I was engrossed in the ‘grand’ and ‘fancy’ parts of life. Rather than taking in the small moments of happiness within my daily life, I tried to look for bigger and better things. But these days, I’ve been thinking more about how I can find and feel moments of happiness through the things around me. Happiness doesn’t have to be an elusive concept. 

When I’m stressed out, I share my thoughts and concerns with others. But there are also times when I need to be alone to process. I might go for a walk to clear my head. The methods are endless, and some days all you might need is just to look up at the clouds in the sky to recharge and find your moment of healing. 

SEVENTEEN‘s Your Choice mini album is out now