Speaking to Taylor Glasby, the band open up about their just-released sixth Korean record Dark Blood, the challenges of the past few years, their beloved Engenes, and why their bond is stronger than ever
ENHYPEN are reminiscing over their first-ever tour, which ended its six-month run around Asia and North America in February. Heeseung grins, shaking his silver-white hair from his eyes, aware of how much it added to their (already impressive) stage presence and, quite possibly, the plethora of fancam edits racking up millions of TikTok views. “[The] Engenes (their fandom) cheered us on so loudly that it gave us a mindset to work even harder onstage and challenge ourselves,” he says. “I think we improved and levelled up, for sure.”
They’re currently deep into a press day for their sixth Korean release, Dark Blood. Filming necessitates that behind them is an unbroken expanse of white wall. It’s so stark that the band’s leader Jungwon (19), Heeseung (21), Jay (21), Jake (20), Sunghoon (20), Sunoo (19) and Ni-ki (17) look almost cut-out against it. But, thinking about it, the amusing irony of the blindingly white flatness is its utter paradox to the characterising wealth of colour, depth and texture in ENHYPEN’s work. Since debuting in late 2020, their multi-layered, story-lead oeuvre has featured symbolism-heavy set production, sonic experimentations, a dizzying breadth of cultural references from Greek mythology to 90s videography, while even their name and logo, a play on ‘hyphen’, is embedded with a directive – ‘come together to connect, discover and grow’.
It may sound hyperbolic in 2023 but ENHYPEN (formed through I-LAND, a survival talent show that began mid-2020) were born into darkness, unleashed into a bewildered, furious and panicked world gripped by COVID-19. Their debut and subsequent releases created entwined dimensions, one forged in fantasy and the other, in their own reality, both imbued with the same kind of fraught, precarious uncertainty exacted upon the world by the pandemic.
Their debut record, Border : Day One unpicked the shift from trainees to idols, utilising allegory via a vampire narrative, which has waxed and waned throughout their discography, then expanded last year into a webtoon, Dark Moon: The Blood Altar, and Wattpad story of the same name. Two trailers (“Choose-Chosen”, “Dusk-Dawn”) and the debut single “Given-Taken” painted change and foreboding in dream-like greens and blues but also bloody reds and over-exposed frames that lent a queasily unsettling feel.
They doubled down on EP, Border : Carnival (2021); three sets of visually opposing concept trailers and the heady “Drunk-Dazed” turning an unflinching lens on their newfound status as celebrities and artists. A mere six months later, their first album – Dimension : Dilemma (and repackaged version, Dimension : Answer) – attempted to balance fame and its rendering immortal of their younger selves onscreen with the tricky metamorphosis into early adulthood.
Last year’s Manifesto : Day 1’s single, “Future Perfect (Pass the MIC)” and feature track “ParadoXXX Invasion”, ended the run of hyphenated singles (“Given-Taken”, “Drunk-Dazed”, “Tamed-Dashed” and “Blessed-Cursed”), which had signified the offering of two paths or perspectives within their narrative. The EP, more importantly, saw ENHYPEN bristling with a fresh sense of identity and conviction.
But, a second Manifesto instalment wasn’t to be: “This is the start of our Blood series,” they announced in their recent press conference, and Dark Blood indeed circles back to the vampiric cues of their debut. In the hands of renowned advert director, Yu Kwang Goeng, their concept film is cinematic and adventurous, replete with fights, betrayal and loss.
Jungwon understands the expectation around a new Manifesto, they’re known for serialising their records, after all, but sees no conundrum in breaking the pattern. “‘Manifesto : Day 1’ was an album that incorporated the stories we wanted to tell at that time,” he reasons. “And this album contains the emotions we felt after the tour and the gratitude we felt towards our Engenes. But there’s also a lot of fantasy-like elements, so I think fans will consider elements of the album, such as the lyrics, to be more fun and dynamic.”
The new single, “Bite Me” (produced by Jason Evigan and Cirkut, the latter who produced Sam Smith’s “Unholy”), charts a destined love that’s bound by blood and almost destroyed by arrogance. It marks Ni-ki's first major contribution to their choreography.
“As soon as I heard the ‘Bite Me’ demo, there was a part (the hook) where I thought it would be nice to include my moves,” he says. Ni-ki was sharing a room with Jake on tour at the time. “I came up with the choreography in front of the hotel room’s mirror. I think it took about 30 minutes, it’s only a short section of the song, so it didn’t take long,” he adds, laughing. “When we came back to Korea, I shot it in a practice room and it was used [for the track], so I’m really, really happy.”
“This album contains the emotions we felt after the tour and the gratitude we felt towards our Engenes” – Jungwon
Heeseung, who has performed several solo covers and expressed a desire to song write, helped direct ENHYPEN’s recording of the single. “I volunteered because I thought that it would help better the song. I pitched in a lot of ideas,” he says. “There were some specific rhythms and vibes for ‘Bite Me’, and people can interpret them in many different ways but I think the members followed my suggestions well and these were incorporated in the final result.”
Enigmatically demanding one moment (“Come here and get some, leave the mark on my neck” they speak-sing on the chorus) and pleadingly persuasive the next, “Bite Me” is a clear, and minimalist, evolution of their sound, which – at least, on their singles – has been robustly propulsive. But it’s not all unfamiliar turf on Dark Blood for ENHYPEN, who are often, as a narrative tool, lyrically and visually cyclical.
In early 2022, the mid-tempo deep cut “Polaroid Love” went viral on TikTok, and last November, their 2021 single, the treacly, aching “Fever”, became their first song to hit 200 million Spotify streams. The pop-rock of “Attention, Please!” and the fan-dedicated “Shout Out” (for which Brisbane-raised Jake wrote lyrics) are both big concert bangers. During a livestream prior to the release of Dark Blood, Jake name-checked all four as sibling songs to some of their new material.
On each record, says Jake, there’s always an element of exploration, pointing to the loose iteration of Chicago drill used on “Future Perfect (Pass The MIC)”. Their curiosity and willingness to change their vocal approach derives from their belief in placing the collective over the individual.
“We’re a team,” says Jay, “so we try to show a lot of different sides to ourselves in each album, and we don’t just use our voices [like a] solo in our tracks. Some things are dark, some things are bright, some things are R&B or rock, and dedicating ourselves to each style is better than, like, [me] being just me.”
Thus little on the new EP rehashes its forebears – ENHYPEN are too ambitious for that – but tracks like “Bills” and “Karma” personify a certain charm and vibe now particular to ENHYPEN, and, arguably, are where they sound most comfortable on Dark Blood. There’s a balance to be found between progression and popular demand, and they’ve successfully anchored a foot in each camp.
“I think we just know what we do the best,” Jake says, his fluent English putting him front and centre for non-Korean interviews, where he frequently acts as an additional translator. “We all enjoy styles like ‘Fever’ or ‘Polaroid Love’, we know fans enjoy that, too, and want to see a lot of it. There are benefits and disadvantages to [continuing a style] but doing what you do best is a good thing.”
In contrast, their more experimental pieces are each record’s spoken word tracks. “We haven’t tried rap in our music yet, at least in the traditional sense,” says Heeseung. “But we chose a format that’s similar, in that narration also tells a story in a straightforward way. It reflects our desire to tell our story [even more deeply].”
“We walk the long, drawn-out line that cuts across the vast land, Because the world carved us on that line… Every step we take, agony turns to bliss,” narrates Jake on “Intro : Walk The Line” (Border : Day One) as military drums and chanting echo behind his voice. Drum & bass shakes “Intro : Whiteout” (Dimension : Dilemma) and gothic guitars underpin the melancholic determination of “Foreshadow”. Their lyrical motifs – movement, lines, temptation, sacrifice, confusion, choice, fate – are given free rein to question and try to decipher all that which comes with being an idol.
For although vampires are the most obvious monsters in ENHYPEN’s universe, it’s fame – incorporeal but always present, alluring yet a crushing weight – that has been their true antagonist. If the spoken word tracks are each a moment to muse over what was and what may come from fame’s hand, then songs like “Mixed Up” (“I’m sick of it, the price of fame”), “Go Big or Go Home”, “Blockbuster”, “Blessed-Cursed” (“To hell with your rules”), and even, to an extent, Dark Blood’s “Chaconne” (“Brighter than the sun, That's just me; Monster, even if you call me, I don't even care”) are defiance in the heat of the moment.
“Fame and desire were things we’ve really struggled with in the past,” Jake says, as Jay nods beside him. Whenever things grew dark, recalls Sunoo, no member was ever alone: “We’re together physically 24/7 and we do almost everything together so we’ve formed a strong relationship,” he points out. “Even when going through hard times, we’re together, and I think this makes us even closer, it strengthens our bond.”
Three years into their career, however, ENHYPEN have turned a corner. The band, says Jake, no longer sees fame as an unknown, and thus unnavigable, entity. Instead, fame simply equals fandom, and their fandom is ENHYPEN’s lifeblood. “Having gone on tour, we’ve met a lot of fans in-person, and I feel like ‘fame’ really just relates to them, like, becoming more famous is just us being able to perform on bigger stages and meet more Engenes all over the world,” he explains.
“We’re together physically 24/7 and we do almost everything together so we’ve formed a strong relationship. Even when going through hard times, we’re together, and I think this makes us even closer, it strengthens our bond” – Sunoo
That’s not to say there are no longer hurdles, they just come in different guises. “We felt overwhelmed when we debuted because it was during the pandemic,” says Jake, “but now that we can meet fans, we feel overwhelmed because a lot of them waited so long to see us. But that pressure helps us become better artists and perform better on stage. I kinda use it to become more energetic and give 1,000 per cent but it’s different for everyone. What do you guys think?” he says, swivelling abruptly, six pairs of eyes flickering to him in unison.
“I think I’m similar to Jake,” says Heeseung, midway through kneading a knot in his shoulder.
“It’s hard to do,” says Jungwon, “but [seeing it as motivation] it’s, I think, the best way to overcome pressure.”
“Without those nerves, I don’t think it really feels like I’m performing,” Heeseung adds. “The nerves that come with having our fans in front of us and showcasing what we’ve prepared is what makes our performances much more fun, and what pushes me to be more spontaneous and take on new challenges.”
One only has to watch them goofing around and teasing each other while filming the music video for “Bite Me” to recognise, at their core, they’re very much still noisy, fun teenagers. But, at the same time, Jungwon sees formative changes in the members that, alongside a natural maturation, stem from a slalom of new experiences (touring, performing at the GRAMMY Museum, live interviews), accomplishments (Dark Blood is their third million-selling album), and heightened responsibilities.
“I think I’ve felt it when we share our thoughts with fans at the end of each concert,” Jungwon muses. “Each member is different but there are quite a few similarities in what we felt, and seeing what the members had to say after our first show in Seoul compared to our last, I could tell there was a change in mindset and how much they’ve learned.”
Former ice skater, Sunghoon, laughs. “Actually, I do feel like I’ve aged [lately]!” It’s hard to tell if he personally believes that’s a good thing or not, but he’s seeing the impact, career-wise: “I think we’re more able to voice our opinions more,” he says, referring to the creative process. ENHYPEN are eager for opportunities to show more profoundly what they’re made of, and know precisely what they have to do next: “As a group, and as an individual, our abilities as artists have improved tremendously, it’s a 180-degree change since our debut. But now we’ve got to do even better,” Sunghoon says resolutely, “and so we’re going to show ourselves growing and maturing more than we ever have before.”
ENHYPEN’s new album Dark Blood is out now