A Night in Hongdae

We Are The Music Makers (WATMM) Hongdae Monthly Gig Volume 16

After some email coordination with Chris P. at Korean Indie, I had the lowdown on where and when to get an introduction to the underground electronic music scene in Seoul, Korea. The location is a restaurant/club in Hapjeong-gu, basically in the southwest side of the Hongdae district. It’s a once-a-month gig, and I got lucky making my plans to go just two days before the show. After some serious online research and a long subway ride, we hit the Lost Continent of Mu, aka Mudaeruk, had some pasta upstairs in the café, and then headed underground to the music pit.

Dark, shadowy, unfinished ceiling and bare concrete walls, a few pillars to lean on, wooden pallets and shipping crates and a Persian rug.  At a small table with a tiny spot light, we showed our stamped hands and slid into the shadows. Throwback disco ball in the ceiling, another multi-colored window light in the corner, a nice full set of tan skins for real drummers upstage, and a nice set of speakers and controls surrounding a corner elevated stage. Standing room only, that is, no chairs, but plenty of shoulder space and floor seating. Bring your beverage with you because the bar is upstairs; this space is for music – appreciation.

Thirty minute sets? Yeah, because it’s not a high profile or high paying gig. It’s ₩10, 000, and four acts were in the lineup. Starting somewhere around 8 p.m. and lasting more than the scheduled two hours, it is an unpretentious display of talented musicians in front of a small (@30-40 this night) group of mostly friends and fellow musicians. A refreshing thing to see was electric bass guitars, rhythm guitars, multiple keyboards and a full drum set, all being used to enhance the electronic music components. With gentle but genuine applause, the night progressed with lots of chatter to the audience, obviously acknowledging colleagues and comrades in music. Easily provoked or triggered by audience response, these musicians were playing with passion, feeling, and lots of smiles.

Independent labels for most of the musicians, although Young, Hip and Whack does have at least a few on their label that join WATMM monthly gigs. Close knit relations are in residence; all three acts were still in the house and remained to cheer on the final performers. Saebyeok, Goldmound, Titan Slang, and Electricity Flowing– these were the performers. A nice mix of drifty vocals over ambient synth and live bass (Saebyeok), eager and energetic pop ballads from a duo of one singer and one musician, although the singer plays guitar but did not have his ax with him this night (Goldmound), cool trance and chill house with the onlyAmerican on the stage and his female VJ(Titan Slang, 2nd appearance at WATMM), and the undeniable house favorite and knockout high-energy set w/obligatory encorewith the live drummer, live guitarist/synth, Electricity Flowing, which is the name of the band leader and vocalist/synth player, Miss ‘Flowing’. Interestingly, Flowing and her band had just played their longest set ever, a monumental 45 minutes, and played their entire repertoire of songs – seven. These musicians are using the technology that surrounds them in most activities of their daily lives, but they are focusing this technology to produce music that they feel inspired and moved to create.

Many folks went up to the café for cold drinks and fresh air immediately after the encore was over. But the after party slid over to a nearby cozy underground bar, and stayed lively until we left at 3:30 a.m. It felt like the perfect place to go and hold court with non-superstars. The mood was loose as musicians Goldmound, Saebyeok, and Kernelstrip dropped names of their inspiration, (disco, funk, British-hop, Radiohead) and at least one Korean role model was mentioned in unison by all present –Jang Ki-ha [and the Faces…ER], of 2008 indie instant fame with ‘Cheap Coffee’ and ‘The Moon is Changing –Let’s Go’ and ‘Walk Slowly’. And that’s the inside story; the fact that Korean indie electronic music artists are dropping the name of a homegrown icon, someone they look up to and idolize, someone doing his thing in Korean style, evoking fond memories of more traditional Korean folk music. He has a folksy and quirky style, is known as a very talented lyricistand appeals to a wide age group Korean audience,but has maintained his indie root loyalty even with his huge overnight success in 2008-09. He now has moved into acting, and a simple search will pull him up as a star in the recent television drama ‘Potato Star’ [Gamja Byol, 2013…ER].

Conceived, produced and managed by WATMM  and YouTube Channel directors Kim Chang-Hee and Shin Sung-Hoon, the monthly ‘Volumes’, as they are referred to, have been going steady since March 2013 [one year anniversary video,in the same location, and have provided an essential and dependable venue for the indie electronic musicians to test their artistic mettle, gain acceptance, and potentially create some positive buzz amongst the corporate heavies that otherwise dominate the industry. According to the WATMM leaders, the underground electronic music scene had a strong presence approximately 10-15 years ago, but gradually died out as indie electronic music artists started to fade away from venues that were being used more and more for mainstream DJ dance music. Furthermore, the artists who once played in a creative and independent fashion took to joining the ranks of mainstream DJ production, and this actually left a void of folks in the indie venues, and this led to most venues changing to a DJ-themed atmosphere. To hear WATMM describe it, the indie electronic music scene has only been sustained here for about the last five years. Their view is that by providing a dedicated venue for unknown and up-and-coming independent electronic musicians a place to perform, in a like-minded and indie-supportive crowd, the performers who might otherwise remain in their homes or apartments will come out and perform, come out and join the others who might also not be so bold or encouraged. So far in the previous 15 Volumes, it appears that there is a solid following, and WATMM is even now confident enough to plan for an international concert to be held in Hongdae during mid-August. Look for Elect Row to be involved in this event.

I might have found some answers to the questions that have been on my mind regarding the Korean electronic music scene. It is not nearly as large as you might think. The vast majority of heavy DJ’s are not part of the underground indie scene, and there is more than a little disdain for the self-taught, self-produced DJ’s who are pumping out repetitive non-original sets. But there is a surge underway, with some of the old timer indie guys coming back to their indie roots after spending five or six years trying to make it in the DJ dance bars, and WATMM is leading it.

Dr. Dave