For P1Harmony, Home Means Being Together

We caught up with the K-pop group during their first visit to Boston to discuss Hallyu history, their favorite fan gifts, and touring without one of their members.

Music Features P1Harmony
For P1Harmony, Home Means Being Together

The day after P1Harmony’s first-ever concert in Boston, the K-pop group’s members walk into the Museum of Fine Arts, ready to explore. “I got 10 hours of sleep last night!” 22-year-old Korean-Canadian vocalist Keeho informs me, after being asked if they are tired from last night’s two-and-a-half-hour show. (They’re not.) The maknae of the group, 18-year-old rapper Jongseob, is wearing a Red Sox jersey with his name on the back, similar to the ones donned by some of his bandmates on the Wang Theatre stage for P1Harmony’s energetic encore on May 26th. Theo, Intak and Soul are also in tow, but sixth member, Jiung, is unable to join us as he is currently recovering from an injury in Korea.

Before we sit down for an interview, the group takes time to peruse the museum’s Hallyu! The Korean Wave exhibit, a 250-object show that puts the global rise of Korean culture in historical and contemporary context for an international audience. The members gather around the displays, discussing the retro Samsung flip phones and the costumes worn by their K-pop contemporaries and sunbaenim. “I feel like it’s really good to highlight the struggle as well as bringing up what Hallyu is now,” says Keeho about the first room in the exhibit, which shows the country’s rapid economic transformation from a war-impoverished country in the 1950s to today’s cultural powerhouse. “It doesn’t just come out of thin air, right? There were a lot of sacrifices that had to be made in order for the culture to be so popular now.”

Intak—a K-drama-handsome, 20-year-old rapper who is known as one of the strongest dancers in the group—tries out the exhibit’s interactive dance challenge, as the other members look on with amused smiles. “Squid Game,” Jongseob states in English when he spots costumes from the Netflix sensation, before moving on to explore. Elsewhere, in a room dedicated to Korean cinema, Keeho stops a five-year-old on the private tour from wandering behind a curtain that shows scenes from the R-rated Old Boy, while Intak examines a recreation of a bathroom set from the Oscar-winning Bong Joon-ho film Parasite. “It reminds me of our first dorm,” Keeho comes over to quip. (When pressed, he says he is not joking.)

Theo, a 22-year-old vocalist, and Soul, an 18-year-old dancer from Japan, are quietly curious about prop photos from Minari, a 2020 film from director Lee Isaac Chung that gives insight into the Korean American immigrant experience. When we sit down in a nearby museum alcove for the interview, Keeho mentions the film as one of the aspects of the exhibit that he connected with the most. “I come from an immigrant family as well,” he says, referring to his upbringing in Toronto’s diverse Markham suburb before moving to Seoul in 2017 to train as a K-pop idol. “That movie resonated a lot with me.”

All of the members present have a part of the exhibit they most connected with. For Jongseob, it is the artful fashion—modern interpretations of hanbok and other Korean traditional styles that have made it onto the runway. For Soul, it is a wall of lightsticks (especially the EXO design)—they remind him of the concerts he’s been to as a fan. For Theo, it is a stage costume worn by BIGBANG’s G-Dragon—one of his favorite artists. And, for Intak, it’s that Parasite bathroom—he calls it “impressive” in its realism.

P1Harmony debuted under the mid-sized label FNC Entertainment with their performance-driven hip-hop track “Siren” in October 2020, at a time when offline concerts were impossible due to the ongoing pandemic. “When you dream of becoming a singer, when you dream of becoming a performer, you expect to have a crowd, right?” says Keeho—whose Gen 4 vocals are often overlooked in favor of his Gen Z social media prowess—of the group’s early career. “When we first heard that we were going to debut, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we can finally perform in front of people and show them our talent and show people how hard we’ve worked for this goal.’ But we didn’t really get to experience that until a year or a year-and-a-half later. It felt very much like, ‘Oh, did we really debut?’”

They were able to connect with fans through a debut feature film, P1H: The Beginning of a New World, which highlighted themes uncannily thematically close to the global situation, despite the project being conceived prior to the outbreak of COVID-19. The sci-fi movie, directed and written by Yoon Hong Seung, sees each of the six members finding their own superpower to help save the world from a deadly virus. While P1Harmony was not able to save the real-life world from COVID-19, they hope they were able to offer some comfort to fans during a difficult time. “We’re very grateful,” says Keeho of their first year. “At a time [when] the world was very dark, being able to release a little bit of something that can bring light and happiness to someone’s life that might be going through something—we felt like it was a responsibility as well.”

Keeho is the leader of the group, known for his devil-may-care candor in an industry that doesn’t always encourage honesty. He is also P1Harmony’s native English speaker, which means he often takes point while in the U.S.—both on the stage and in interviews like this one. (Intak and Jongseob are comfortable answering many questions in English, while Theo and Soul seem less confident in their English-language expression.) When we finish the interview, the museum-affiliated interpreter compliments Keeho on his ability to translate meaning across languages and cultures. At one point during the 30-minute conversation, Keeho respectfully steps in to further interpret something Intak has expressed, wanting to ensure the emotional complexity contained in Intak’s answer comes across as fully as possible.

Keeho’s desire to make sure each member is heard and understood is emblematic of a group that is—forgive me—in harmony. On stage, the fourth-generation dark horses are known for their ability to deliver steady vocals alongside powerful choreography, with the group’s rappers penning their own verses. In Boston, they flipped seamlessly from hip-hop-inspired, high-energy anthems like “Killin’ It” (the title-track off of their 2024 studio album debut of the same name) to smoothly melodic fan songs like “I See U.” They did this all while down an integral member in Jiung, the group’s 22-year-old vocalist, dancer (and Keeho-identified second-best English-speaker). Jiung had not yet been able to join them on the North American leg of their UTOP1A tour, but his co-members mentioned him frequently while on stage, and fans were able to hear a recorded audio message from Jiung during the show. (Jiung has since returned to perform with P1Harmony, starting with their June 8th performance at Governors Ball Music Festival in New York.)

“There’s an extra burden,” says Keeho of Jiung’s absence, adding that they want to make the performances as strong as possible by redistributing his responsibilities where they can. “[That means] filling in that extra space and making sure that people still feel like they’re having a fun time without constantly thinking, ‘Oh, someone’s missing.’” Keeho notes he takes on more mid-song ad-libs of encouragement in Jiung’s absence, making the other members laugh with his impromptu “Scream it out!” example. “We also do that to hopefully make sure that [Jiung] isn’t worried for us,” he continues, noting that the members’ health is their number one priority as a group. “I’m sure he’s like, ‘Are they doing OK?’ And we don’t want him to feel like he’s missing out on too much.”

To keep the energy up at the Boston show, P1Harmony interacted with the audience between songs, giving the night a heightened sense of spontaneity compared to most K-pop concerts. “When we are on stage, we like to do a lot of stuff on the spot,” says Keeho. At one point during the show, he initiated an impromptu vocal battle between two randomly chosen fans. “This is so nerve-wracking,” he said, before passing a mic to the first contestant to attempt the chorus of P1Harmony’s 2023 bop “Fall In Love Again.”

The group also gave a rare performance of 2022 hip-hop track “That’$ Money,” which Jongseob calls the most memorable part of the night. Jongseob—who has been rapping since at least 2016, when he first appeared as an 11-year-old on competition show K-Pop Star 6—has writing credits on the song (alongside Jiung, Intak and FNC Entertainment CEO Han Sung-ho). “Before the show, we did the soundcheck and we asked our fans, ‘What’s your favorite song?’” Jongseob explains, preternaturally professional in spite of his baby face. “And they all said ‘That’$ Money.’ Why? I don’t know.” The track is famously not one of P1Harmony’s favorites to perform—they find the lyrics a bit cheesy, explains Keeho—but they were happy to do it for their fans. “[It was] special,” confirms Intak.

Fan engagement is integral to every part of K-pop, and is arguably at its most visceral during a concert. For the entrance to their Boston encore, the members of P1Harmony walked down the aisles of the orchestra section, stopping to take selcas, complete hand-hearts and accept gifts as they sang. “I love snapback,” says Intak, when asked if there are any particular kinds of fan gifts they like to scoop up. Jongseob prefers plushies, while Soul will grab any Minecraft-related items he sees. “I love a good sunglass,” says Keeho, and Theo concurs.

Introverted eldest Theo is reserved in the interview, but is known for being the group’s moodmaker and for his ability to make the other members laugh. He also comes out of his shell with P1Harmony’s fans, known as P1eces. For his solo number in Boston (each member got one), a sweet rendition of Stephen Sanchez’ country-pop love song “Until I Found You” complete with guitar accompaniment, he easily got the audience to croon along. When making his way down the orchestra aisle, he was the slowest (although also, to be fair, the last), stopping to interact with many enthusiastic fans. “We have a plan: by the end of the song, everyone should be on stage,” says Keeho, calling him out. “He did not get on stage.”

Wide-eyed observer Soul is similarly shy in the English-language interview, but he uses his skills as a dancer to connect on stage. Though Soul has a Korean parent, he did not start learning Korean until he moved to Seoul. This means, as a member of P1Harmony, the Japanese teen is almost always performing in either his second (Korean) or third (English) language. In this context, dance becomes a native language for connecting with fans across cultures—a vital and often undervalued key to K-pop’s global popularity. A highlight of the UTOP1A show comes in Soul’s solo dance showcase, an electrifying demonstration of his muscle control and rhythmic understanding.

While P1Harmony obviously enjoys touring, I ask the members if they have a specific place they think of as home; they have been on tour for much of the last few years and, even when back in Seoul, they do not have much time off to visit friends or family. Intak, an eager listener with an open face, switches to his native Korean to give a thoughtful answer: “It’s been so long since I’ve been home that, when I do go back home, where my parents are from, it seems awkward,” he shares, as translated by the interpreter and Keeho. “But that feeling doesn’t go away when I’m at the dorms, either. So, wherever I go, it doesn’t necessarily feel like home. It is the members being together that makes it feel like home.”

It’s these moments of individual and collective earnestness, brought out by the easy chemistry the members have with one another both on and off stage, that help P1Harmony stand out in a noisy world. “K-pop is such a huge, huge market and industry,” says Keeho. “It’s really hard for teams and groups to figure out their own color and the thing that they bring to the table. But I truly believe that P1Harmony has their own lane, in terms of music and talent, and in terms of our own artistry.” This is a continuous work in progress, Keeho notes, but the group takes pride in experimenting with music, concepts and their own unique style. “I feel like our fans will know that and, in the future, hopefully more people will get to know that as well.” During the Boston show, P1Harmony spoke of ambitions to perform in a bigger venue next time. After seeing the group killin’ it in front of more than 3,000 cheering, barking, singing fans, it seems inevitable. The world may be noisy, but P1Harmony aren’t tired yet.

P1Harmony are currently in the middle of their North American tour. They will also be performing at KCON LA in July. You can find information about tickets here.

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