Posts tagged ‘music’
CNBLUE’s latest Korean release, the six-song mini-album 7°CN, dropped on March 20 and it’s possibly the best thing they’ve put out in the past couple years. It’s also a giant step forward in their creative development, with the addition of electronic elements to their signature rock sound.
A few times in their career CNBLUE has made quantum leaps in their musical development and artistry. RE: BLUE, their first album that was completely self-composed, was an explosive and radical departure from their earlier, more KPop-styled Korean releases. Their 2014 Korean mini-album, Can’t Stop, also demonstrated massive growth in their musical development. With 7°CN the band once again has catapulted far beyond their preceding releases, opening up an almost unfathomable artistic distance between this album and their last one.
CNBLUE dipped its toes into EDM on their 2015 release 2gether, as well as on some of their Japanese albums (including the standout tracks Still and Radio, both from Wave), but with 7°CN they are all in on the electronica. Yet at the same time the band manages to retain a strong rock feel on the album, attesting to their increasing skill as composers, producers, and musicians. In this release they get some help from a new collaborator, US-based producer Justin Reinstein, whose past credits include Kpop acts Vixx and SF9, and Japanese pop legends Arashi, among others. Reinstein brings a glossy sheen to the record that brightens and freshens up the usual CNBLUE sound. The result is a strong new direction for the band that fits organically with their established sound.
There’s a definite sense of urgency in this release that was absent in their past few albums. On their last two Korean releases, 2gether and BLUEMING, band leader Jung Yonghwa seemed content to noodle around, experimenting with various styles and types of instrumentation, but this release has a laser focus to it. It’s almost as if Yonghwa has started to count down the days until his military enlistment (sometime in 2018) and he’s realized he has no time to waste any more.
This is very evident in the title track, Between Us (Korean title, Confused), which is a gorgeous, powerhouse piece of pop music. Here the urgency is particularly palpable as the songs starts in medias res, charging directly into the driving chorus before returning to the verse, as if Yonghwa doesn’t want to take any chances with losing listeners. Unlike the leisurely buildup of their 2014 track, Can’t Stop, which begins slowly and then gradually hit its full stride, Between Us goes straight for the jugular right away. The result is thrilling, and as the song builds the effect only becomes more exhilarating.
The track’s dense production includes both electronic drums and a trap set, roaring rock guitar licks, several layers of vocals, and a thundering bass line, creating a veritable wall of sound. This echoes the intensity of feeling expressed in the lyrics, which describe the uncertainty of a couple on the edge of falling in love. Interestingly, the lyrics were co-written by a woman, with some smartly expressed paradoxes including “when I see you I can’t breathe/I need to see you to breathe,” and the vulnerability in them is in sharp contrast to the strong downbeat and buzzy guitar riff that drive the song. Likewise, the slight discordance of the close harmonies in the final chorus underscores the confusion of the track’s Korean title.
As in the best CNBLUE tracks the small embellishments enhance the sound beautifully, such as the intricate piano and cymbal fills during the song’s pre-chorus. Also effective is the contrast between is the song’s quieter sections, including a couple smooth passages sung by Lee Jonghyun and a passionately belted bridge by Yonghwa, with the driving beat of the chorus. By the end of the track Yonghwa is wailing away in an ecstatic fervor, Kang Minhyuk’s drums are double-timing, the guitar and bass are blazing, and the entire song is clicking away on all cylinders. It’s an irresistible slice of pop music.
The second track, It’s You, leans more toward the pop side of things, and sounds a bit like some of the songs on CNBLUE’s last Japanese release EUPHORIA. But whereas that album’s production style is a stripped-down throwback to 1960s soul, here Yonghwa and co-writer and co-producer Reinstein fatten up the mix with finger-snapping, a hooky refrain, a bit of horns and piano, a brief rap in English, and the catchphrase “oh baby girl, it’s you,” as well as a smattering of synthesizer and some vocal processing. The result is a fresh, bouncy earworm of a track.
One of the pleasures of CNBLUE’s music is the interplay between Yonghwa’s and Jonghyun’s vocals and the third track, Calling You, is a stellar example of this. The song features the two singers effortlessly swapping lead vocals and kicking some gorgeous falsetto. The old-school Hammond organ and rhythmic, wah-wah pedal guitar riff, and some jazzy chromatic shifts add to the rich, fat sound of the track.
When I Was Young, the third track (composed by Jonghyun), is another standout cut. Once again liberally making use of the electronica side of the pop music spectrum, this sexy and slinky track mixes up trap beats, dubstep, and Yonghwa and Jonghyun’s smooth and effortless, soulful vocals. Yonghwa manages some of his most assured and inspired singing here, ranging from full-throated belting to sultry crooning. The lyrics belie the track’s smexy feel, however, as they are a lament to lost youth. Although heavy on the EDM, CNBLUE’s rock roots come through in the track’s anthemic chorus, a fuzzy, distorted guitar riff, and a deep deep bass line.
Bassist Lee Jungshin, who recently started publishing songs, adds another solid tune to his repertoire, the sweet uptempo ballad Manito (Secret Friend). Yonghwa makes great use of the song’s simplicity to improvise around and over its basic melody, showing off his ability to embellish and elevate a simple composition.
Closing out the EP is the Korean version of Royal Rumble, one of the standout tracks from EUPHORIA, CNBLUE’s Japanese release from last fall. The track features a polyrhythmic Latin beat coupled with Yonghwa’s haunting vocals. Although both the Japanese and Korean lyrics follow the same basic premise, of the experiences of a fighter forced to do constant battle in a never-ending competition, the Korean lyrics are actually much bleaker than the Japanese translation. Whereas the tagline of the Japanese version ended with somewhat hopeful line “nevertheless I dream on,” the Korean version (which I assume Yonghwa directly wrote) has no such redemptive words, closing instead with “maybe I want to end it too.” I’m hoping Yonghwa means ending his musical career and not something even darker and more hopeless. The structure of the song also complements the despair of the lyrics as the beat of the song moves along briskly while the vocal line moves in half-time. During the verse Yonghwa sings slightly behind the beat, which also contributes to the sense of fatigue and exhaustion.
In their seven-years-plus since their 2009 debut CNBLUE’s songcraft has become increasingly skillful in that time and both Yonghwa and Jonghyun are now masters of the three-minute pop song. Likewise, the demands of both their accelerated release schedule and their constant touring have strengthened their vocal technique. Yonghwa in particular is in another realm now with his varied and accomplished singing on every track. His voice is now incredibly strong and supple, ranging from a sultry purr in the lowest parts of his range on When We Were Young to a high tenor on Calling You and his passionate and expressive dynamics on Between Us are the engine that powers that song.
Ironically, even though this may be one of their strongest and most accomplished releases to date, its sales have been the poorest of their career in South Korea, their home country. The album has done well internationally, topping iTunes charts in nine countries around the world and garnering almost universally positive and in some cases rave reviews. Yet in South Korea CNBLUE continue to be prophets without honor in their own country as neither the song nor the album have been particularly well-received.
There are several reasons why this might be, chief amongst those being the fickle, youth-driven South Korean pop music market, as well as the lingering damage from the bad PR the band suffered last summer due to the incompetence of their agency, FNC entertainment, in the handling of insider-trading accusations. FNC also seems to have been caught by surprise with the middling reception of one of their headliner acts, as publicity and promotions in SK have been scanty. Recent CNBLUE releases have also had lackadaisical support from FNC but CNBLUE’s overall popularity during those times made up for the agency’s indifference. But after last summer’s controversy it’s a brand new world, and seven years in Kpop is an eternity, so even reliably popular senior groups like CNBLUE have been losing market share to the latest hot new acts.
Watching CNBLUE make the rounds of the Kpop music shows this past week has been an interesting experience. Since their digital sales have been lower than usual they have no chance of winning any of the trophies on these programs, so their performances have been somewhat meaningless. Added to that is the fact that they are mostly hand-syncing on these programs—they certainly give it their best, but since they are used to the much more invigorating experience of playing live in their concerts, being on Kpop shows has got to be a little bit less than exciting for them. I think it’s starting to dawn on them that they might not need Kpop or commercial success in South Korea to keep making their music. They’ve topped charts all over Asia and have even cracked the Billboard Top Ten World Music charts with this release, so maybe South Korea is beginning to become irrelevant to them. Although it’s sad they’re not appreciated in their home country these may be the hard facts.
It may be the start of their transition from a Kpop group to a real touring band, which is probably better for them in the long run. Their abilities and appeal are undeniable so I hope they can expand their base beyond the unappreciative South Korea music market. I’ve been following popular music for decades and CNBLUE’s talent is a rare and special thing. CNBLUE creates pop of the highest order and it would be criminal for their surpassingly excellent music not to be heard and appreciated by a wider global audience.
Bonus beats: In case you need convincing that Between Us is a great song, here’s a piano cover of it. Even without all the fancy overdubs the bones of this tune are so solid. This is amazing songwriting, people. Listen and weep.
With EUPHORIA, CNBLUE’s latest Japanese album that dropped last October, the band continues its ongoing musical evolution and growth. While probably best known for its incredibly catchy early power pop hits like I’m Sorry and I’m A Loner, or it’s more densely produced later tracks, including songs such as Can’t Stop, Cinderella, and You’re So Fine, with this new release CNBLUE goes back further to the roots of its sound, to a more stripped-down early rock and roll and R&B style.
CNBLUE has always worn its musical influences on its sleeve and EUPHORIA is no different, with nods to artists as diverse as Peter Gabriel, Coldplay, Wiz Khalifia, and Sam Cooke, among many others. Their particular talent is taking those influences and synthesizing them into something new and energetic.
The album is frontloaded with six incredibly strong and diverse tracks, but in truth each of the album’s ten tracks ranges from good to excellent. Though the album isn’t quite as perfect as CNBLUE’s best release Can’t Stop, which is a masterpiece from beginning to end, EUPHORIA is still full of high-quality songwriting, performing, and production.
The lead track is the melancholy mid-tempo cut Be OK. A plaintive lament about fighting uncertainty, pain, and self-doubt, the song recalls Coldplay and other Brit-pop in its simple, guitar-based structure. Jung Yonghwa and Lee Jonghyun’s vulnerable, evocative vocals and the sadness and longing in the lyrics create a lovely and unadorned sonic picture. As with many CNBLUE duets between the two of them, the track alternates the wistful delicacy of Jonghyun’s vocals with Yonghwa’s explosively raw and emotional voice. The song ends with Jonghyun barely whispering the affirmation, “I’ll be okay,” which lends a hopeful fragility to the song’s message. This is quickly becoming one of my favorite CNBLUE tracks as the passion and power in this song is no joke.
As if to counter the melancholy of Be OK, the next tune, the album’s title track Glory Days, is a more uptempo track that picks up the pace without sacrificing the emotional thoughtfulness of the prior song. The lyrics describe the “long, long journey of my dreams” which the band has traveled, encountering obstacles and difficulties along the way but never giving up on their vision. The arrangement and production on this track also contrasts with the spareness of Be Okay, with a dense wall of sound combining close vocal harmonies and a rich interplay of synthesizer, piano, and guitar that provides a bed for Yonghwa and Jonghyun’s confident vocal relays. What may not be immediately apparent is the bass line of the song, which travels from thumb-popping plucking to deep, resonant hums. CNBLUE’s musicality is apparent in this track where every element highlights the band’s chops, creating a gorgeous sonic pop music palette.
Take Me Higher, the rockingest song on the album, shows off the band’s signature passion and intensity, as if to prove they can still kick it with guitar-based hard rock. On top of the driving 4/4 beat the song adds a funky James Brown-style guitar riff that demonstrates the evolution of their sound beyond straight-up rock music. Interestingly, this song was composed before the band’s recent insider-trading scandal in June 2016, and the track, including its chorus “direction of my hope,” expresses an exuberant optimism and confidence not found in the rest of the album, much of which was likely composed post-scandal.
Face To Face is another incredibly hooky tune, with Yonghwa crooning and belting like a 60s R&B soul shouter. Although some of CNBLUE’s past English-language songs have been a bit cringeworthy in their awkward phrasing, here the syncopated beat works with the lyrical structure. The old-school keyboards and horns and the doowop refrain adds to the R&B feel as the band channels Stax-Volt stalwarts like Booker T and the MGs and Sam and Dave.
Following Face to Face is Puzzle, the first single off the album that was released in spring 2016 and also composed pre-scandal. Another densely produced and upbeat track, Puzzle starts with Yonghwa belting the title lyrics acapella and the song never lets up after that. As usual Yonghwa and Jonghyun provide energetic vocals but the track is really driven by a zippy arrangement that rides Kang Minhyuk’s relentless drumming skilz. Althought it’s a hooky tune, it’s a tad less interesting upon repeated listening. The tune works much better as a soundtrack to the song’s crazy and whimsical music video.
The next track, however, is the album’s standout. Royal Rumble is pretty much unlike anything I’ve ever heard from CNBLUE. The song uses a syncopated, polyrhythmic Latin beat and a complex guitar line under Yonghwa’s evocative vocals to create a beautiful, singular track. The lyrics, which describe a fighter who faces countless opponents in a battle royale, echo Yonghwa’s experiences in the cutthroat K-Pop world, where even the winners are eventually beaten down and worn out. One of the last lines “I must hurry” repeats before the last haunting chorus. Images of fear, drowning, suffocation, and pain reflect the traumas of existing and surviving in the competitive South Korean music industry. Yonghwa has written eloquently in the past about the vicious nature of the K-pop world, most recently in Checkmate from his solo album (Around here/swords and shields/We become enemies/rip apart each other/and vanish), but Royal Rumble perhaps best reflects the intensity of his experiences there. The last line of the chorus, however, translated as “nevertheless I dream on,” is a moving testimony to Yonghwa’s hope and optimism in the face of ongoing suffering and strife.
Following Royal Rumble is another throwback R&B-style cut, Every Time, with a syncopated beat under Yonghwa and Jonghyun’s confident and soulful vocals. Once again Kang Minhyuk provides a strong and steady beat to anchor the track. Bassist Lee Jungshin contributes the midtempo ballad Stay With Me, with Japanese lyrics that seem to scan successfully. Yonghwa sings it well, in an unembellished style suitable to the song’s clarity and simplicity. Slaves, another upbeat R&B bop, is a goofy tune about cell-phone addiction. But damn if it isn’t catchy as hell and again Yonghwa has fun singing it, belting out the chorus like the legendary soul shouter Wilson Pickett.
The closing track, Blessed, is a sweet lament to the uncertainty of love, but Jonghyun’s English lyrics are somewhat less effective here than in Be OK. As with Every Time, the syntax and phrasing are just a bit awkward, which detracts from the song a bit. Yonghwa’s plaintive singing utilizes the deeper end of his vocal range to good effect, with Jonghyun contributing ably as well. The emotions of the song ring strong and true and this song, together with Be OK, create an evocative conceptual frame for the album. Although some of the tracks are upbeat and positive the uncertainty of these two songs create a lingering sadness and a sense of emotional complexity that perhaps reflects the band members’ state of mind after their troubles this year.
The quality of the songwriting, the increased maturity of the lyrics, and the general excellence of each track on Euphoria speaks to CN’s continued growth and development as artists. Although the guitars are mixed a bit lower than in some of their previous releases, the rock-based backbone of their sound is still there, enhanced with a more sophisticated sense of rhythm and beats. The result is more evidence of the band’s restless creativity and its desire to continue developing musically as they move beyond the constraints of their K-Pop origins into a more elevated artistic territory.
Three versions, You’re So Fine
POSTSCRIPT: CNBLUE recently performed You’re So Fine, their hit song that dropped back in April, on several televised year-end gayo (K-pop) music shows. But instead of simply recycling the song’s original arrangement for their performances, Yonghwa re-arranged the track differently for each of the different live performances. And it wasn’t just a bit of tweaking here and there—each version was radically different and included different instrumentation than both the original track and the other versions they played that week. It seems like Yonghwa’s collaboration last year with indie queen Sunwoo Jung Ah is still reverberating through his musical consciousness as he’s been heading in a decidedly jazzy direction lately. All three arrangements of You’re So Fine on each of the gayos featured improvisational vocals by Yonghwa as he snaked his way around the melody with various rhythmic and harmonic counterpoints to the original tune.
I’m pretty sure that there was no requirement that they come up with a new arrangement for each show, so the band’s insistence on giving an original performance every time no matter what the circumstances is a testament to their desire to be known as musicians and artists, not just idols. They continue to blaze trails in the K-pop world and their only dilemma may be figuring out how to graduate from K-pop and move on artistically from the confines of the genre. I hope their talent and vision is recognized and rewarded accordingly both in South Korea and beyond.
UPDATE: Yet another brand new arrangement of You’re So Fine, this time for the Golden Disk awards on Jan. 13. Orchestral and jazzy, with strings, horns, and added percussion, as well as Yonghwa prowling around in his long black furry coat. He owns the stage in this clip and also throws in a short interaction with EXO singer Baekhyun. You can see he was dying to find a way to get down into the audience this time too. Genius.
Bonus track: Yonghwa sings a smexy version of Sunwoo Jung Ah’s Spring Lady on Yu Huiyeol’s Sketchbook
So the awesome new documentary, We Are X, about legendary Japanese speed metal band X Japan, dropped last week here in San Francisco. An energetic and engrossing look at one of Japan’s most popular bands, the film follows the group’s long and often tragic history, as seen through the eyes of its charismatic leader Yoshiki, the band’s drummer, pianist, composer, and mastermind.
I attended a screening of the film at Mezzanine in San Francisco, followed special performance by Yoshiki, who performed a short set including a rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner (!) and held an extensive Q&A/lovefest with his adoring fans.
As a special perk I also got to meet Yoshiki backstage, where I tried desperately to control my fangirling. I got to shake Yoshiki’s hand (soft and smooth) and observe him as he chatted with his friends while a hovering videographer and a photographer documented his every move. I’m happy to report that despite his superstar status Yoshiki is a nice fellow, especially for a rock god.
The next day I got the chance to sit down with filmmaker Stephen Kijak to talk about We Are X. I’m also familiar with Kijak’s earlier film, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man (2006), so it was fun to talk with him about his experiences working with two pop music legends.
beyond asiaphilia: So what was it like to show the film to room full of fan people last night?
Stephen Kijak: Last night was amazing! We were in Austin the night before and then San Francisco last night for the screening and both cities had the most passionate fan response I think I’ve seen. Just young people, too, that had a history with the band and discovered the band as teenagers–collecting all this stuff, they had really deep knowledge of the band and a really passionate response.
BA: So what is the difference between when you show it to a general audience versus people who know every detail of the history?
SK: At the festivals, some of the fans find out and make their way, so you kind of test each audience by starting off with a, “WE ARE (makes X gesture)“, and you see how many people do an X. At Sundance, I think, maybe five?
SK: We did a festival in Moscow, the beat festival. It was all music and documentaries, and it’s a lot more accessible to the general public. We went “WE ARE (makes X gesture)“ and the whole place went up in Xs, the whole cinema. So, like, the metal heads of Russia all came to Moscow to pay homage to Yoshiki! You know, it’s one thing when it’s a screening of the film but when he’s going to appear afterwards to either take questions or play piano, it becomes a real event for the fans.
SK: Because usually, you’re seeing him on top of a drum riser with pyrotechnics and it’s a stadium show, and here he is in a movie theatre with you-
BA: Ten feet away.
SK: It’s pretty intense.
BA: He was really close. I’m sure a lot of people couldn’t breathe in that room last night.
SK: Yeah, I could not believe it, actually. It was intense last night.
BA: Yes, at one moment when he was playing the second song he paused. People were singing along–
SK: Endless Rain. Yeah.
BA: They were singing along quietly. Not loudly. Which I thought was very beautiful. And then he paused and stopped playing and they kept singing.
SK: They kept singing.
BA: It was just, like-
SK: Oh, my God, right?
BA: That was the moment. Wow. His charisma is amazing. Just amazing. But anyway, ok, we’re done squeeing here.
BA: So I actually know your other film about Scott Walker, which I really love, and again it’s kind of weird, because you’ve done the Rolling Stones movie? And the Backstreet Boys movie. Then, this X Japan movie – everybody knows who X Japan is in Asia but here they’re a little more obscure. Scott Walker is definitely obscure these days unless you’re really, really, really hip. So what are the different approaches you have when you have to deal with these incredibly famous people like the Rolling Stones versus Scott Walker?
SK: It’s all storytelling. You have to just tell a story, and that’s it. Scott Walker–I was the fanboy, you know, I was obsessed with his music. But you really have to just approach them professionally and go ok, I’m not a fanboy, I’m a professional storyteller, I need to figure out how to break this down and piece it together in the best way possible that’s going to be emotional and cinematic. I’m not just putting facts in order to tell you A, B, C, D, whatever it is. My creative approach is always that of a kid making a mixtape for his friend. The art of the mixtape was something that I tried to perfect when I was younger. I worked in a record store, I was taping songs off of records and making mixtapes for friends and wrapping them up in these little packages, and to me the movies are literally an extension of that because you have to figure out how to tell a narrative, you have to communicate it in a way that’s going to move people emotionally and half the time the technique is to imagine you’re literally making them up –
BA: You said that last night, yeah.
SK: It’s a way to work that, if you had the choice, what would be the beats, where would you go next, logically, if you were trying to craft a drama. Because you can’t let the celebrity and all that get in your way. They try to get in your way and you can’t let them.
BA: That’s my other question. Both Scott Walker and Yoshiki are quite strong characters, human beings, personalities. There must have been some push and pull with them, right?
SK: I weirdly feel that the two films are slightly similar in that you’ve got a beautiful enigma kind of hovering in the middle, which are our central characters, but they couldn’t be more opposite. Scott Walker was someone who was super-famous who, because of the shock of fame, retreated into this kind of wilderness. And he tried to surround himself with silence and he really keeps himself well-hidden and protected and really just wants the music to be the only thing you’re confronting. So our access to him was relatively limited. I think I might have had forty-five minutes to interview him, and it was the last thing I did.
BA: Weren’t you in the studio with him, though?
SK: We were in the studio. We had, like, one and a half days. We really did not have a lot of time. Which was insane, to think we had to make a whole film and he gives you just enough. But he’s a master of that economy within his music, so it kind of makes sense. Whereas Yoshiki is fully revealed at all times, you would think, it’s constant cameras. I had ten billion hours of archive to work with. He’s been having himself filmed and archived forever and it’s actually very well organized and logged. It was an open door policy. I mean, cameras everywhere, people were filming us filming him, it was kind of excessive. But at the same time he wears a mask which you need to try and chip away at.
SK: Which is a great cue to go okay, we can go all doppelganger on you and work with a lot of visual doubles and splits. It gave us a clue to a visual world we could create.
BA: Did you pull all that B-roll from his archive? All the psychedelic, dreamy stuff, was that something he shot, or did you shoot that?
SK: Well, the real psychedelic crazy stuff was probably stuff we created. We got a brilliant graphic design team that created that title sequence and all the really psychedelic sequences within the movie which are probably things we made, but we would generally make them with things we shot or from his own archive.
BA: Although there is that one part with the David Lynch footage—
SK: That was like a total surprise. I knew they had worked together and I had been combing through the logs going, where’s Lynch, where’s Lynch, and just one day it was like, box 903 and tapes one through twenty and I was like, what’s this, let’s just start looking at things, and there he is. He basically directed a music video for Yoshiki that I think kinda got shelved but it was right before he was gonna make Lost Highway so I think he was testing out a lot of tricks. Like the fire in the desert and all that stuff, but there’s Yoshiki in the middle of it.
BA: It was like, oh yeah, there’s David Lynch. Because it’s not flashy the way you put him in there! So, you make a lot of documentaries. You made a narrative a while ago but it’s been pretty much straight up docs and music docs. And it sounds like you were a big music fan when you were a kid.
SK: It’s a pocket that I like being in, I love. It motivates me. I feel like you can turn these stories around so many different ways. And each one provides unique challenges in terms of how to approach it, and they’ve all been radically different and this one especially, starting from no knowledge of the band. It was like great, I know nothing about this band, let’s hop in and take this on, you know? And the majority of those people you are trying to reach here in the West are going to be like me, like who the hell are these guys? So I can be that guy and that conduit and you can maybe see it through my eyes. Yet at the same time given the privileged access that we were allowed, what I discovered, thankfully, was that the fans are seeing a side of the band that they’ve never seen before, so it kind of works both ways.
BA: And has it screened in Japan yet?
SK: I think it’ll be February or March – I’m not a hundred percent sure.
BA: Oh, because the record is coming out.
SK: Yeah. The record is coming out and I think he kind of wanted kind of like a homecoming, with the success of the film in the States, like with the wind in his sails. I think it was very important for him. Because it would have been very easy just to make the film and release it in Japan and be done with it. But there is an aspect of this whole thing that is about trying to expand the awareness of the band just to see what kind of a success they can make of themselves outside of their comfort zone and the film is a big part of that.
BA: Is he pretty hands-on about that stuff?
SK: Yeah. He runs everything. I mean, look at the tour. There’s no artistic director. He runs everything, standing up on his drumstool, on his drum riser, dictating everything–the pyro, the lights, the screens, where the band goes, who walks down there, when things explode, when the CO2 blasts out, when the drum goes out (laughter), I mean, he’s running it all himself, all the time.
BA: He’s orchestrating it.
SK: It’s absolutely mind-boggling. So he’s got a plan. And if this ever makes this way to fans in Japan–they’ve been so patient. And we thank them for their patience. It’s coming, we haven’t forgotten about you.
BA: It’ll be interesting an experience to see how that’s received.
SK: I really just can’t wait, because we did show it at the Shanghai International Film Festival and it was in some freaking movie palace and it was off the charts– security, people rushing on the stage, screaming…
BA: Throwing dolls up there…
SK: Everything. They actually had advised him not to do a red carpet because it would be too crazy. He said, well, then I have to do a red carpet. It’s like he orchestrated the event in such a way that there would be pandemonium. But it only got people more excited. He’s a master showman.
BA: It’s interesting because I think in the movie he comes off as being this very delicate angsty person – which I’m sure he is, but what seems to me is that his personality also has an incredible steeliness to it. What you did to try to bring that out as well|? How did you balance that with his tragic life?
SK: Well I think you just have to present it. You just have to see it and draw your own conclusions. You know, we asked Pata, the guitar player, are you ever worried about him, seeing him collapsing. I mean, Pata’s been there since day one and he’s man of few words, but he winks at you and he goes, pssht, he’s not that weak. Come on. (laughter) Not that guy. Give me a break.
BA: So it’s the mask again.
SK: But there’s psychic and emotional pain and physical pain and I think there’s a really interesting relationship between the two. The physical pain helps numb what’s inside. But he carries himself in a very calm, peaceful, quiet manner outside of the realm of his rock star presentation. But he also just lets it out. And I think that’s the case with a lot of performers. The stage is where they unleash it, right?
BA: Do you think that you were able to penetrate the mask that he wanted to show you?
SK: Oh yeah. I mean, granted, it was hair and makeup for every interview, but we had to stop half the time, because he’d be crying and getting very emotional. I think once he decided he’d let me in, in a way, he was really forthcoming and I just felt a closeness in these interviews that I don’t usually get to with musicians. I mean you try to go there and sometimes you just can’t get through.
BA: How long did that take?
SK: The first interview was the day after Madison Square Garden and really we had started with that–I had no preparation. We were shooting days after we got the job, really. And so he was exhausted and kind of elated at the same time. We just sat him down for a very quick forty-five minutes and one of the first things I asked him was, what an amazing night, who do you wish could have been here to share in this experience, you know, totally loaded question – but he immediately started talking about his dad and just got really choked up. And we just went from there and I think just having him observing how we work – he was very impressed with the crew and the team, I think a lot of people who will normally shoot with him or try to approach him for interviews or anything especially in Japan are doing so with a real reserve and they put him on this pedestal, and we just had to go for it. No boundaries – I mean, it was respectful, but we were invasive. And I told him, look, we’re gonna be as obnoxious and as annoying as we can be during production and I’m going to make you uncomfortable and we’re going to cross as many lines as we can, because we can always pull it back in the edit if we need to. But let’s not be censored. If you want to make a great film, that’s kind of part of it, so… And he got it–-I think once he was in, he was all the way. Because he was resistant to making the film apparently, for years.
BA: So what was surprising to you about making this movie? What did you learn about them that you didn’t expect?
SK: Well, it was just the whole thing. It was X Japan itself. It was literally being side-stage at Yokohama Arena, literally a week after meeting him, to see them warming up – warming up – for Madison Garden with two sold-out arena shows. I had never seen anything like it in my life–just the intensity of the fans. I think that was THE most jaw-dropping, just seeing twenty thousand people X-jumping, and crying, and singing along, and just that simultaneous collective passion was at a level I had never experienced. I mean it was an actual just shock in the most beautiful way, literally just being privileged to stand right there. I’m right here, the stage is EXPLODING, there’s pyro, there’s all this stuff, and there’s just a sea of people with their little glow sticks making Xs as far as the eye can see and I was just, where am I? What has happened to me? I just couldn’t believe it.
BA: So you hadn’t witnessed Asian pop music before-
SK: Not to that level. Not to that level. I mean that was pretty awesome. Pretty awesome. It’s a question you get a lot, and it’s never just one thing, it was just kind of the totality of that experience. And then you realize what a heavy burden you have to carry. I’m sure there’s a million fans that wish they could have been in a position to tell the story.
BA: So did the moviemaking change you?
SK: I think they always change you a little bit. I know I have a lot more grey in my beard right now. But, they always change you in some way. I mean, Scott Walker had set a certain bar as an artist and he was someone I felt that I could learn lessons from in terms of how strong you have to be to be an artist and to go down a certain path. I don’t think I could ever be that strong, to go so fully into an artistic wilderness on your own and do something, though I would love to. I think sometimes economically and just logically you kind of can’t do that –
SK: But, in Yoshiki’s case, X Japan… there was such an artistic freedom. It was more about freedom, in a lot of ways. He didn’t mess with us at all and literally, the film was 90% finished, accepted into Sundance, and then we showed him a cut. He gave us that much kind of leeway.
BA: Did you get feedback after that?
SK: A little bit. But it really, it was so minor, because the film was done. There was kind of no going back after a point, so it was a bit of a risk. I think what I took away from his kind of artistic project that allowed us to push it that far visually and emotionally. You kind of feed on the artist and their aesthetic world–that’s kind of how I try to then put that back into the film and try to make sure it’s all calibrated in a way that feels like the music and feels like the show and has a visual aspect that rises to the level of the subject, you know. And it was that kind of excessive freedom that I think he brings to his art that really fueled us and let us really stretch out and do something different with it.
BA: Did you feel like he was collaborating with you?
SK: Oh yeah. Yeah yeah yeah. You know, he says, “Oh, I was too busy to mess with you,” Because he is really on the go all the time. But he said to him it was just a level of trust, so he couldn’t be involved because it’s too painful. He says it a lot and it’s a good story but I do buy it because I’ve seen it in action–he could hardly edit the DVD of the Last Live concert, you know. He said it took him three or four years to finish it because he would watch five minutes and he’d have to go cry and take a break. And that’s one show, forget about the whole career.
BA: Did you ever find a barrier or a wall that he wouldn’t let you through? Like when you asked him about why Taiji got thrown out, and he said, “I’m not telling.”
SK: Those aren’t necessarily walls or barriers, there are just certain things that you know, if he’s not gonna answer, he’s not gonna answer. And we’ve never got an even off the record, that’s one he’s going to take to his grave. Which is fine. I think we need to leave a little mystery intact.
BA: Cool. So you’re still in love with this movie?
SK: I love this movie. I love this movie. I can’t remember – was it Picasso, they asked him, what’s your favorite painting, he says, “the last one, or the next one,” or whatever it is. It’s only in the last few weeks of really showing it to a lot of diverse audiences where you’re really feeling the impact of it. And your perception of it keeps changing. But, yeah, I’m really proud of it. I’m really proud of it. I love it. Which I said about the Backstreet Boys movie, and I love that movie. (laughter) But this one’s just like another level. There’s just something other about this one. It was more of a challenge and I just think it’s visually one of the most stunning things I’ve done yet. I had such great collaborators, like really great collaborators, behind the camera and the graphics team, my editorial team… Everyone just knocked it out on this one. I love it.
So here’s how it happened. My family spent this summer in Taiwan and I was hoping we could brush up on our vernacular Mandarin by watching some Taiwanese television. I thought we could acquaint ourselves with Asian pop culture in general as well, so Korean dramas could also be a part of that mix. I wanted to look at Taiwanese dramas to work on our Chinese-language skills, but somehow my daughter ended up watching the gender-bending K-drama You’re Beautiful instead. Because the plastic surgery on the boys’ noses was way too distracting I only followed it intermittently, but I would occasionally glance over at the screen and watch a bit with my daughter, since the show is charming and amusing.
And then, boom! I caught a glimpse of a boy with the most amazingly beautiful and fascinating face, who stood out even amongst his very pretty co-stars. I literally could not take my eyes off of him, he was that mesmerizing. Although he didn’t seem to have any plastic surgery and his teeth were distinctly crooked, it was impossible to stop looking at him, he was so charismatic. I soon found out that the actor in question was Jung Yonghwa, the leader of the Korean rock band CNBLUE.
K-Pop is a very strange universe and the more I find out about it the less I’m sure I like it. Commercial pop music around the world is by nature a very capitalistic place but K-Pop in particular seems to be pop music to the nth degree. The songs are hyper-catchy but not necessarily very deep or meaningful, and seem to be designed to be listened to for about a week maximum, after which they are supplanted by another hyper-catchy and not very deep tune. The performers are uniformly young and beautiful, either by nature or makeup or cosmetic surgery. Most of them are drilled to be precision dancers, and the fashions are ultra-trendy, with mas de moda hairstyles in many rainbow colors. The music videos are glossy and slick, with crazy dreamlike imagery meant to stick in your backbrain just long enough for you to pay your money and download the songs.
Plus, in order to sell songs, groups go on a variety of music shows and compete viciously for trophies every week. There seems to be about a half-dozen of these and the groups make the rounds after dropping each song, participating in a sadistic hazing ritual that pits group against group based on digital streaming, record sales, music video views, and popular voting both ahead of time and live as the shows progress. It’s kind like the hunger games for pop music except without the literal dying, but the humiliation for the losers and the jubilation of the winners is similar enough to a fight to the death. So it’s not exactly the most nurturing and comforting creative atmosphere.
CNBLUE is a bit of an anomaly in the K-Pop world. Along with their labelmates FT Island they are one of the few bands, as opposed to dance groups, to become K-Pop stars. CNBLUE is partly an idol group, partly a pop-rock band, and partly a collection of male supermodels, as each member is pretty damn good looking. But the band can also play their own instruments and sing, and they also compose most of their songs, so they don’t fit the typical K-Pop mold. They are also most emphatically not a dance group, and their music is much more rock than hiphop or dance-oriented like other K-Pop groups.
So I’ve become completely fascinated by Jung Yonghwa and CNBLUE. Some reasons for my interest include:
Boys with guitars
I’ve always loved rock music, from punk to metal to power pop, and CNBLUE plays some of the catchiest pop-rock around. Yonghwa has a knack for writing hooky, complex, and accessible tunes that earworm into your brain immediately. I’m Sorry, Can’t Stop, and Cinderella, to name just a few of their most popular tracks, are all catchy as hell and each is unique and distinct from each other as well.
Great live shows
CNBLUE is famous for their balls-out live performances and Yonghwa in particular leaves it all out on the stage for every show. The interwebs are full of youtubes of their rocking live shows which seem to get better and better as the years go by. No doubt their grueling touring schedule of the past six years since their debut has helped them improve their live performances immensely, as they have literally played hundreds of shows in that time, which is par for the course for many top-tier K-Pop groups. (From 2013-2016 CNBLUE played more than 100 concerts, as did Big Bang and Super Junior, two other kings of the K-Pop world). Ironically, when appearing on Korean television shows (which K-Pop groups do incessantly) CNBLUE doesn’t always get to play their instruments live, since the TV shows are designed for dance groups, not bands with guitars and amps. But even when hand-syncing CNBLUE members manage to rock the house with their sheer energy and stage presence.
K-Pop has this thing called “visuals,” which basically means how good-looking your group members are. Members are usually recruited for their physical beauty and if they are not up to snuff then their agencies aren’t shy about sending them out for a spot of plastic surgery to fix things up. CNBLUE, however, is pretty well-known for their excellent visuals without going under the knife (and the rumor is that their agency, FNC, picked the members in particular because it was too broke at the time to afford plastic surgery). In other words, CNBLUE’s members were chosen specifically because they are tall and good-looking first, with their relative musical skills secondary. They’re widely regarded as having “no visual flaws,” which in K-Pop fan parlance means each member is exceedingly handsome.
So all four members are supernaturally beautiful, with guitarist Lee Jonghyun in particular possessing inhuman good looks. Yonghwa not only has a beautiful face, with large, wide-spaced eyes, an elegant nose, and a narrow jawline, but he also possesses a remarkable amount of charisma, charm, and stage presence for a young man in his twenties. So it’s a lot of fun to watch CNBLUE since they bring the pretty. Although this has certainly helped with their mass appeal, in some ways their beauty has worked against them as far as being taken seriously as musicians, since they are considered idols first and musicians second, despite their musical skills. I’ve had a hard time convincing my friends that it’s about the music and not just the visuals when it comes to CNBLUE since their good looks are so immediately overwhelming at first.
The secret menu: Japanese releases
CNBLUE has released a huge number of albums in Japan that contain a whole nother catalog of songs created for the Japanese market. Not only does this mean that they’re sung in Japanese but the music tends to be more the rock side rather than the pop side. Which means these albums contain many more heavy-duty power chord guitar-based tunes specifically designed to be played at full speed in live stadium shows. Their first major-label Japanese release, Code Name Blue, rocks hard and loud and contains several of their best J-Rock style arena songs (Where You Are; Come On; In My Head; Have A Good Night). Many of these were written by Yonghwa, whereas the songs on their Korean albums they were releasing at the same time (2012) were still mostly written by other people. Even second vocalist Jonghyun, who leans toward pretty crooning on their Korean releases, rocks out on the Japanese albums, and Yonghwa belts like a boss. For those who prefer their tunes to rock a bit harder, the Japanese releases are the way to go.
CNBLUE just dropped their latest mini-album at the beginning of April, a five-song EP called Blueming (hint: flower pun). Included is the lead track “You’re So Fine,” which includes a poppin’ bass line and some soulful vocals from Yonghwa, who also wrote and produced the cut. The tune is a fat and catchy track, with its synchopated rhythms and swinging horns giving the song a 60s R&B feel. Yonghwa is a smart and savvy songwriter and he includes four or five singalong hooks in both Korean and English. His vocals are impeccable as well, with effortless octave jumps, seamless transitions to falsetto, smooth dynamics shifts and rhythmic patterns, and an easy control of his tonal and volume range, whether spitting a syncopated patter, swinging a sweet ad lib, or belting out the chorus. In most K-Pop songs the vocals are divided among the various members, with one person singing the lead, one the chorus, one rapping, one in falsetto. Here Yonghwa sings almost all of the parts himself, with a little help from second vocalist Jonghyun, which is an impressive feat for song with such variations in the vocal line.
The song’s music video is quite K-Pop, with over-the-top costuming, hyperkinetic editing, and a hypersaturated color palette, as well as the ridiculously handsome look of the four band members—if you aren’t used to the genre it’s probably best to listen to the song without watching the MV as its high-gloss styling can be quite distracting and overwhelming.
There’s been some bitching and moaning among certain CNBLUE fans since this release is much more on the pop side (and the title track is very retro R&B), rather than rock. To a western observer such as myself it’s odd to hear a musical group criticized for stretching its creative boundaries and trying out different genres. I’m used to artists like Prince, David Bowie, and the Beatles, to name just a few, whose sound always changed and evolved with every release. To me it’s strange that CNBLUE has been criticized for trying out new musical styles, which seems like a healthy sign of creative growth and maturity. CNBLUE has already mastered the art of the power chord blues-based rock song so it’s nice to see them moving into jazzier compositions and arrangements. To my mind there’s nothing wrong with some syncopation and a bit of scatting to liven up a song. It also shows a more sophisticated musicality that’s promising for the band’s future releases. What I’m hearing is the convergence of their musical styles between their Korean and Japanese releases. With the exception of You’re So Fine, the tracks on their most recent Korean release, Blueming, sound a lot like the ones on their two most recent Japanese albums, Colors and We’re Like A Puzzle, showing a heavy dose of Oasis and brit-pop influences.
Their most recent Japanese single, Glory Days, which dropped last week, is an effortlessly listenable slice of J-pop-inspired pleasure, with a pretty piano line weaving through the melody and the lead vocal relaying between Yonghwa and Jonghyun to create a catchy, upbeat track. The subtle addition of strings and a church organ adds a reverent and dare I say spiritual atmosphere which is echoed in the beautifully conceived and shot music video to the song. Not as hard-edged as some of their other Japan releases, the recording has a delicate and wistful beauty to it. Despite its seeming simplicity the track reveals its complexity after several listens, attesting to Yonghwa’s increasing skills as both a composer and a producer.
Right now there are some obstacles that may keep CNBLUE from fully exploring new musical directions. The first is that, as part of their job as K-Pop idols, they also are required to be active in other entertainment fields, including modeling for fashion magazines and appearing on variety shows and in advertisements. Whereas Western pop stars mostly have the luxury of focusing primarily on their musical output and somewhat less on their public image, in K-Pop world it’s a different story.
Like their fellow K-Pop idols, the pressure is on for CNBLUE to constantly produce new musical product, pose languorously for various fashion spreads, wear stylish and trendy outfits at the airport, appear in dramas and variety shows, tour around the world, and otherwise live their lives as South Korean pop music celebrities. All four members have acted in Korean dramas, and Yonghwa is awaiting the 2017 release of his very first movie, the Chinese film Cook Up A Storm with Hong Kong superstar Nicholas Tse. And as per all South Korean males, the four members will soon have to serve their mandatory military duty, which lasts a little under two years and which will probably take place in the next couple years for the two oldest members, Yonghwa and Jonghyun.
A more immediate threat is the involvement of both Yonghwa and Jonghyun in an insider stock trading scandal earlier this year surrounding CNBLUE’s fucked-up agency, FNC Entertainment, which by all accounts is sleazy and badly run. After almost of week of mudslinging and speculation Yonghwa was cleared of all suspicions of insider trading, but in a surprising twist, the investigation then revealed that Jonghyun was also involved in the case. Despite Yonghwa being declared innocent of all charges and Jonghyun only receiving a small fine, some K-netizens feasted on the possible downfall of two of K-Pop’s biggest stars. It was an unsavory spectacle to observe and some online commentators took a particularly vicious glee in attacking the squeaky-clean idols. The whole situation was really distasteful and in my opinion was being used as a distraction from various political scandals happening now in the country including a multi-billion dollar scam involving the Lotte group, one of the country’s biggest corporate conglomerates. I also suspect that Yonghwa’s shady boss may have been throwing Yonghwa under the bus to keep himself from being implicated.
It’s hard at this point to tell exactly what the turn of events were due to the opacity of motivations of all concerned but by all accounts Yonghwa bore the brunt of the bad publicity . As a side note, Yonghwa is hugely popular in China and interestingly enough, the Chinese press was much more supportive of Yonghwa than was the South Korean media.
If for some reason Yonghwa’s career takes a damaging hit it will be a loss for everyone concerned because he’s the real deal and not just a run-of-the-mill disposable idol. The only possible silver lining is that it may scuff up his clean-cut image a bit, which ironically may make him more marketable in the West, where being a bad boy is a badge of honor, not something to be shunned as it seems to be in South Korea. Also notable has been the unwavering love from most of CNBLUE’s and Yonghwa’s devoted fanbase, thousands of whom throughout the length of the scandal expressed their undying support across social media platforms such as twitter, weibo, and instagram.
But despite the admirable loyalty of the fans (along with some petty bickering), after following the insider trading accusations and its aftermath I’ve liked K-Pop and the whole bloodthirsty South Korean entertainment scene even less. It’s heartbreaking that someone can be crucified in the press without even going to trial and Yonghwa’s case was a very ugly spectacle. God help us as a species if this is the way we treat our artists, especially young people like CNBLUE. Capitalism eats us all and it will be especially tragic if the aftereffects of the scandal hinder Yonghwa and CNBLUE’s ability to make music. Because in the end, despite their physical gorgeousness, their modeling talents, their fashion sense, and their acting skilz, CNBLUE is really about making great music. Everything else is just gravy.
UPDATE: As another example of their artistry here’s a link to the lyrics for “Glory Days.”
who gently nudged my back
Most likely written by Yonghwa after the insider trading mess this summer, the song is all about keeping faith during hard times. When read together while watching the MV of the track the entire song comes together beautifully as an expression of Yonghwa and CNBLUE’s state of mind during and following the nasty controversy they faced.