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WayV: the Chinese boyband steps into their new era

WayV's Kun, Ten, Xiaojun, Hendery and YangYang sit down with Taylor Glasby to discuss their story, their new single and the night they all ended up in tears

Three days before the new year, WayV, the Chinese sub-group of NCT – the 23-member boy group created by K-pop behemoth SM Entertainment – released Phantom, their first record since the platinum-selling Kick Back in March 2021. Kun, Ten, Xiaojun, Hendery and YangYang (WinWin is absent for this interview) had been nervous on the run-up to Phantom, even more so than when they’d debuted in January 2019. “Everything for the debut was set up, like, everything is ready for you,” says 26-year-old Ten, the band’s lithe, Thailand-born vocalist and dancer. “But doing a comeback, and if you haven’t come back for [nearly] two years, there’s higher expectations,” he adds, a sentiment echoed by fellow fluent English speaker YangYang, a rapper and WayV’s youngest at 22.

Their debut was a Chinese version of NCT 127’s “Regular”. Visually futuristic, it set precedent for their videos to come – a sci-fi dystopia of grimy spaceships, neon-flooded rooms, ruined backdrops and abandoned locations – but although WayV do incorporate NCT-favoured mechanical sounding EDM (“Bad Alive”, “Kick Back”), their oeuvre’s signature is an epic sense of scale. Layers and layers of strings, piano, guitars, and brass turns singles and deep cuts like “Moonwalk”, “Turn Back Time”, “Electric Hearts” and “After Midnight” into sweeping pop sagas that pulse with ambition.

Phantom”, the titular lead single, at least on-screen, does away with the hi-tech. It borrows heavily from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version of The Phantom of the Opera, utilising candelabras, masks and broken chandeliers, as well as recreating the sword-covered Iron Throne from Game of Thrones. At first glance, it’s a marked departure from their usual style, but for Ten – who operates on the barest of filters (during a livestream in September he let slip a new album was en route) – the video still falls under what he terms the “villain” atmospherics of previous singles, where their “tough, dark sides” are showcased.

But it wouldn’t be WayV if there was a constant consensus. After all, off-stage, their USP is a chaotic, sibling-like camaraderie. They’re earnestly serious one moment, chattering over each other the next. If a question isn’t fully understood in English, they move to Korean while whispering footnotes to each other in Mandarin, a concerto of raised eyebrows, sidelong glances, and laughter muffled by jumper sleeves.

Ten thinks the most noticeable switch-up is their newly goth-ified wardrobe, while vocalists Kun and Winwin, as seen in their behind-the-scenes content, spent much of “Phantom”’s shoot wide-eyed at the unfamiliarity. YangYang, who, alongside 23-year-old lead vocalist Xiaojun, has seen the bombastic musical firsthand, doubles down, saying their take presented “the challenge [of] going into a dark concept”.

Instead, they find agreement on the lavish, romantic thematics as “an old, cool kind of style” and on the difficulty of wearing handfuls of heavily jewelled, full-finger rings. “They’re so hard to dance in,” Ten laughs. “We kept scratching ourselves. They hurt too, we had to tighten them up or they’d come off when we danced. Sometimes they would just break, sometimes they’d fly off around the set. We have so many takes where we have to stop in the middle and fix them.”

Sonically, “Phantom” deploys certain WayV-isms (their penchant for countdowns in the lyrics, having Xiaojun’s voice soar off the bridge) but it’s imbued with a new kind of tension: It creeps sinuously towards a chorus overlaid with Gregorian-style chants and tight strings, builds into a graceful, fluid bridge, then slinks back into the darkness. If masks are a foundational lyrical motif (“Footsteps of a masked existence/On a journey of self-discovery/Because truth does exist”), then swords are a main visual component – members recline against them, grip a huge, single blade, and stand amongst flying CGI daggers.

The symbolism of swords, at least in tarot, is of change and courage but also planning, problems and struggle, something WayV identifies with. “I feel like this song represents our hardships that we’ve passed through for the past two years,” says Ten. YangYang, his white hair tucked under a blue-grey cap, nods. “The mask, it’s a symbol too. Finally we take off our mask, showing everyone who we are.”

Can they pinpoint the biggest of their hurdles besides, perhaps, the pandemic? WayV falls quiet. Ten shakes his bangs out of his eyes. “There’s so many things that happened… I think it’s very hard to say,” he says wryly. For him, the ‘phantom’ isn’t a tangible being, it’s situational, emotional, a “shadow”. “Taking off the mask is us not hiding, it’s that we’re facing obstacles but we’ve kept a strong bond and still do our best to overcome them. We’re brave enough to take off the mask, that’s the meaning I was thinking of.”

Hendery, the 23-year-old rapper whose upbeat energy is laced with a surrealist sense of humour, emerges from the depths of his hoodie. “I think so too, I agree!” he blurts loudly, making Ten and Kun, WayV’s leader, smile. “I think our lives are so full of ups and downs, we need to be brave to face the facts, to face any trouble,” he continues, as Xiaojun nods sagely.

“No one is perfect, so we have a lot of things to learn. It all depends on our mind and I think we’re professional, so we won’t let [negative] comments influence us” – Hendery

Heightened communication and preparation helped them through the uncertainty of returning to the spotlight. “We were ready because we practiced a lot before the album but we were scared about how the audience would perceive us,” says YangYang. While not chronically online, the members all have personal Instagram accounts with open comments, and post on the band’s Twitter and Weibo. Xiaojun has come to appreciate constructive criticism from the public, saying, “When we see comments and it makes us feel a certain way, it’s because we want to push ourselves to be better.” Hendery nods: “No one is perfect, so we have a lot of things to learn. It all depends on our mind and I think we’re professional, so we won’t let [negative] comments influence us.”

“There’s two sides to this though,” Ten says. Over the years, he’s developed an ability to compartmentalise what he sees written about himself, aware that dividing opinion is just part of the fame game: “I think that’s how I cope with social media. If there are bad comments, I won’t ignore it, I won’t mind. Even if I do read it, I won’t get upset because you choose where to focus your attention. If you want to have a good time, then just focus on the good things. You have to be able to separate the good and the bad, don’t mix them up.”

Ultimately, what instilled the most confidence in their album and return was a genuine love for the songs on it. “Our manager, our staff, even the A&R team, were all really supportive, so we had more time to talk to them about the concept and songs, the things that we like and what we don’t,” recalls Ten. “We were listening to all the B-sides and the title, and we’re like, ‘Is this going to work? Will this satisfy the audience?’ But we can’t only think about that, we have to think about ourselves – is this the right album we want to show people after two years?”

This, their seventh release, deepens the relationship between the members’ individual talents and the overarching concept upon which WayV was created. “Diamonds Only” is a harder-edged earworm, the minimal instrumental of “Bounce Back” places a welcome reliance on the group’s vocal prowess, and the audacious “Try My Luck” samples Mozart’s “Requiem (Dies irae)”, cheekily prefacing it with an air-raid siren. It also contains two bonus tracks released during their downtime; YangYang and Ten’s “Low Low”, and Kun and Xiaojun’s “Back To You”, a surprisingly delicate yet robust ballad whose melancholy trumpet and chimes evokes 1970s icons, The Carpenters.

Those side projects were important, says YangYang, to stretch their skills. “When we do subunits, for example, me and Ten doing “Low Low”, that sound is something WayV doesn’t really do. And Kun and Xiaojun did a ballad, that’s also not a WayV concept. So when we gather as a group again, we get to show this experience and improve with each other.”

It has, says Ten, made their creative process faster overall. “When we’re in the dance studio, in practice, like, I [might have] said, ‘YangYang, it would be better for you to do this gesture in this part… ’ I don’t need to tell him anymore, he has all the experience and he’s like, I’m just going to make this myself.” This independence has impacted their interpersonal relationships too; the strong sense of duty to protect each other as young idols has mellowed from the obvious and careful to familial and instinctual. “We know,” says Ten, “but we don’t really… show it.” YangYang says the same thing, finishing Ten’s sentence with him. “Like we know and we wanna help but we secretly help. I think that’s our relationship,” Ten explains.

“We hadn’t seen each other for a long time so we talked to each other, like, ‘this year we’re going to make things better and work harder, let’s do this, bro’... One person started crying, then we looked over and everyone’s crying. It was very dramatic... But it was awkward the next day” – Ten

Kun – who turned 27 on New Year’s Day and has an air of hard-won patience towards the members’ havoc – sees a clear evolution in his team. “Everyone has matured a lot so I don’t feel like I need to be taking care of them as much as I used to. That’s why I’m able to embrace and show a bit more of myself such as my child-like side to the members.” He’s a keen songwriter and producer, a quiet adventurer who flies planes and skydives. “There’s nothing much to help with the members but I can help with the daily needs,” Kun says, instantly setting himself up for a ribbing. “Electronics!” yelps YangYang. “Fixing the Wi-Fi! Cooking!” says Ten, laughing. YangYang turns to their leader, fondly: We still go to Kun a lot though.” Hendery nods, “He knows a lot.”

“I think our positions in the group have become clearer [these days],” opines Ten, who takes on anything dance-related and says Kun is vital in arranging “team stuff”. Xiaojun and Hendery are the “mood-makers”, to which the former laughs, saying, “I do feel like my role in the group is being the mood-maker, and I plan to take it on even more.” Hendery adds: “We’re really just being ourselves so I’m glad to hear that our members see us that way!”

In between albums, they spent significant time apart – from WinWin’s foray into drama acting, to Ten’s mentor role on the Chinese dance reality show, Great Dance Crew – yet Hendery points out they “FaceTime all the time” to maintain their close relationship. When Ten returned from China, says YangYang, “we had a party for him and we talked a lot. We drank a bit of alcohol… ” Hendery’s eyes widen. He knows what’s coming. “TMI!” he shouts like a warning shot. Ten picks up the story: “We hadn’t seen each other for a long time so we talked to each other, like, ‘this year we’re going to make things better and work harder, let’s do this, bro’. Then everyone started crying. But it was funny! One person started crying, then we looked over and everyone’s crying. It was very dramatic.” YangYang rubs at his neck: “But it was awkward the next day.”

Even as they wrap up this short but packed promo run, YangYang has promised their fandom (WayZenNi) that they have no intention of disappearing again. “Basically,” he says, “I kind of think [of] Phantom as us reborn.” Xiaojun terms the album as laying “a path for us to succeed”, while for Kun, this has been “a time for us to develop and grow as individuals and as a group, that’s how I would look back at it.”

For Hendery, he looks forward to the day when they can take a more pragmatic, even amused, view on their extended absence: “I think in a few years’ time, when we eat together with a hotpot, we can say, ‘Yo! Remember that time you did Phantom, you did great!’ We have a lot of tough times at the moment but I think a few years later it will be a fun talk for us.”

Ten is as positive as his bandmates yet assertively ambitious for their future. “These two years [have been] unforgettable for us. I think we’ve learned a lot – so many lessons, so many mistakes, so many things to improve – and we want to take all those experiences and show all the fans, all the listeners, this is WayV from now on. This is us, this is the new era.”

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