If the radio in South Korea is any indication, that country traffics in exactly two kinds of music: the K-pop that has swept the globe in the last couple of years, and “ballad” music, the sluggish, traditional warbling favored by cab drivers and seniors. Seoul drum-and-guitar folk-rock duo WAGWAK sounds nothing like either. In fact, while most Korean music is easily identifiable, because of the language and styles in which it’s made, there’s nothing about WAGWAK’s sound that would tie it to its home peninsula. And that’s just how Daehyun Kim and Sangyoung Cho like it.
“I like the idea that you can listen to our music and not know if we are Korean,” says Kim.
What WAGWAK might more easily be mistaken for is a one of the batch of British indie folk, like Mumford & Sons or Frightened Rabbit, that have been sweeping the airwaves these last few years. And they have mastered that sound. Cho’s tumbling guitar fills and Kim’s furious strumming are catchy and captivating, giving the visceral sense that these two love what they’re doing.
So, how did a British indie folk band come out of Korea? Through the magic of the internet, travel and being in the right place at the right time.
Cho, 26, and Kim, 27, met in 2007 or 2008, though neither can remember exactly when. They were introduced by a mutual friend and quickly warmed to each other. It’s easy to understand why. Both men have a sort of alternative style—though piercing is illegal in Korea, Cho has a nose ring, and Kim’s long hair stands out among his neatly trimmer peers—and both had an interest in the Western music they found online. They started making music together in 2009, but then Kim went to London for a year to travel and study English. When he returned the next year, they took up music-making in earnest.
While in London, Kim had immersed himself in music, made friends with promoters and fellow musicians and relished the loose atmosphere at shows. “I went to so many gigs. I saw so many bands and learned about the music as well, how they make the sound. The atmosphere was amazing. How the crowd was like. It was totally different to Korea. People are more into music,” Kim says.
Around the same time in Seoul, a promoter by the name of Sean Patrick Maylone was putting together shows under the name SuperColorSuper. He hosted parties in hip neighborhoods like the university area of Hongdae, mixing expat outfits like LHASA with homegrown Korean acts. Sometimes illegal tattoo operations were there, giving free ink or getting busted by the cops. Art hung everywhere, and native and foreign artists took turns free-styling presentations on old-school classroom projectors, which were pointed at white sheets hanging from the ceiling. At one party in January of 2010, WAGWAK was the last act to perform. The audience clustered in tight, dancing and flailing around as Cho and Kim tore through their set. That sort of behavior was normal for the many expat teachers in attendance, but the normally demure Korean audience members joined in, too. It was clear WAGWAK was on to something.
“In Korea, we had half-and-half crowds. Foreigners kind of found the music we play kind of like home. Then, all the Korean followers were like, ‘Oh they play music I never heard.’ We didn’t mean it, but we somehow made this great reach between the two.”
Maylone also hooked WAGWAK up with gigs opening for the likes of No Age and Jeffery Lewis, for whom he promoted Korean shows. WAGWAK recently moved to Europe to pursue their music in earnest, and they’re now trying to exploit those connections and Kim’s network in London to get their music heard. One goal, they say, is to reach diverse audiences, not just fellow Koreans living abroad.
“I heard the Korean bands I know who went to SXSW [like Vidulgi Ooyoo] played for Korean crowds,” Kim says. “It was kind of sad that they went all the way to the US and played for just Koreans. We want to play for European crowds and American crowds, too.”
So far, everything’s going as planned. Kim and Cho have moved to Stockholm so as to have a home base from which to tour and promote their EP, The Way to Drive into the Arabian Sunset, and they’ll soon travel to Canada for some gigs.
WAGWAK aren’t interested in changing anyone’s perception of Korean music. “Ah! K-pop!” Kim says, jokingly shaking his fist. “It’s nice to say that it’s different, but it’s not a rebellion. You listen to your music and we play our music and we get along with people who like our music.”
Whether he and Cho mean to or not, however, they are helping to draft a new chapter in Korean music history—one where the country’s culture is catching up to their advanced technology and there’s room for more than just ballads and K-pop.