Photo courtesy of Apollo 18

Brian Hough
The Navigator

Choi Hyun-Seok’s hair falls over his guitar strap as a reverb soaked feedback drenches the venue. Bottom lip tucked behind his front teeth, he shoots a grin over to bassist Dae-Inn, who smiles widely and nods his chin. Hyun-Seok lets a single staccato bark fly into the mic and Korean Music Award winners Apollo 18 rip into “Corpse Flower”.

Corpse Flower, from the recent “Black” Ep, is a song that encapsulates almost every aspect of Apollo 18’s music–a mix of heavy rock and psychedelic, the break neck speed of punk and the atmospheric density of post-rock. The audience that was just mesmerized by the dreamy “Warm” has just started bouncing and bobbing back to life. Fists start pumping.

In the 60’s and early 70’s, psychedelic rock became the defining sound of Korean rock and roll. That merged later into heavy metal in the early 80’s. While still being very popular today, the era of metal fell somewhat by the wayside with the birth of the Indie scene around Hong-ik University, Seoul, alongside
the early Chosun Punk explosion of the mid-90’s. By around the mid-2000’s, punk rock had taken something of a backseat as audiences and musicians started drifting towards post-rock, experimental rock, noise, and shoegaze.

In many ways the group’s catalogue, consisting of EP’s ‘red”, “Violet” and “Black”, and the full-length “Blue”, is a mix of every major movement of Korean underground music to emerge since the 50’s.
With that historical context, it should be no surprise that a band sounding like Apollo 18 should come out of Korea. Although the balance of the sound might be uniquely their own, its core elements are deeply-rooted in the history of Korean subculture.

With a truly independent music scene having only emerged in the mid-90’s, it’s taken a while for the scene to really build a domestic audience–let alone an international one–but this is changing.

Unique to the current generation of Korean musicians, there are increasing opportunities for Korean bands to start making international tours part of their itineraries. Since 2010 Korean indie bands have hitting festivals like SXSW (USA) Canadian Music Week (Can), Pop Montreal (Can), Beastie Rock (Taiwan), Fuji Rock (Japan) and building tours around those performances- and Apollo 18 have been leading the way.

In the last 4 years, the band have played the US, Japan, Taiwan, Canada, England, Russia and China, appearing at some of the largest festivals in the world (including those mentioned above).

“Our first tour was difficult and we were initially nervous about the new experience. It was difficult to plan but once we started our tour, it became worth all of the trouble,” says frontman Hyeongseok.

“It was a success and we made many fans during that tour. Our favorite experiences were those that involved meeting the audience after the show and talking with them about how they felt about our music.” He adds, ‘the audiences go really crazy in the US. It was great.”

And its no surprise that they’ve gone so far so quickly, breaking new ground not only for themselves but for Korea’s often forgotten underground as well. Within 8 months of playing their first show in late 2008 they were booked the following summer for Korea’s two largest rock festivals: Jisan Valley and Pentaport, on the same weekend.

And in early 2010 they were awarded the Korean Music Award for “Rookie of The Year” and released 3 EP’s (‘red”, “Violet” and an expanded version of ‘red”) and a full length-“Blue”. Hyun-seok gives the diplomatic musician response “We don’t really think about these things just our music.” Bassist Daeinn is a bit more candid, “Our Moms were very happy and proud”

So while the West’s preoccupation with Korean culture has centred around cutesy pop like Girls Generation or the eccentric PSY (and there more as a youtube sensation rather than as a musician or artist), the Korean Wave’s undertow has slowly been making inroads into music scenes across the world.

Far from being alone an increasing number of Korean bands are building international audiences abroad much in the same way Apollo 18 have. Garage-space rock band Galaxy Express (whom the New York times once compared favourably to the MC5) toured with Apollo 18 across the UK last year, and both bands have been making annual trips to North America over the last 3 years.

Hardcore Punk band Things We Say went on their first North American tour as did electro-rock/synthpop outfit Love X Stereo. Yamagata Tweakster, We Dance and Kuang Program all took to Japan for tours and the apocalyptic post-rock band Jambinai (think Mogwai with traditional Korean instruments) have been playing all kinds of festivals everywhere from South America to Scandinavia, becoming the first Korean Indie band to be on what can truly be called a world tour.

It’s starting to become a regular thing and you wonder if Apollo 18 are aware of the trend they may have helped inspire.

“Perhaps yes, but we try not to focus so much on this aspect and just enjoy our music and live in the moment,” Hyun-Seok says, typically modest. But once one band or one artist has laid the groundwork, it makes it a lot easier for the next people to do so.

And they’re starting to get a lot more support from all sides of the community in their efforts.

“We received a lot of support from Korean Indie scene. Korean Indie fans have been wholly supportive of our projects.”

He then continues to tell a story about how, during a fundraising concert for one of their first trips to North America, a woman came up to them after the show to donate roughly $1000 to their tour. What’s more, she actually flew in from Indonesia for that show. Several people who were there confirmed witnessing it.

And it’s not just their fans either:

“We received from KOCCA (Korea Creative Content Agency) which is a government entity that supports independent artists from Korea. Many bands have since received support from KOCCA.”

While arriving on the scene somewhat late, the government (as well as a number of private companies) have started stepping up with funding for bands looking to tour abroad as a way of promoting the country and changing its image to one with a more youthful, energetic feel (almost every city in South Korea designates itself as having qualities like ‘fast,’ ‘dynamic,’ etc.)

In short, they’re starting to realize that they may be able to make better use of their misfits, dreamers, oddballs and rebels.

And it’s more than just laying down the infrastructure; it’s also helping to set some precedents to prepare people for the experiences that they might have abroad. The generation that these musicians represent are really the first to have been born and raised with almost complete freedom to travel anywhere they want to and the DIY touring infrastructure is only now being formed. Take these two stories from Hyun-Seok’s experiences touring Eastern Canada in 2012:

“On that stands out was during our 2012 Canada tour. We were driving during the night when suddenly a deer appeared in the middle of the road. We were all very surprised.”

That may not sound like much but Korea doesn’t really have a lot of wildlife, not even small mammals. The starvation during and after the Korean War was so great the families literally killed and ate every last bit of wildlife they could. Even rabbits are hard to find.

Long story short: if you’ve lived your entire life in Korea, how do you anticipate having to watch for animals (that potentially stand as high as you) jumping out in front of your car?

Or how about this example:

“When we were traveling on the road from Ottawa to Montreal and were caught speeding almost 20 km/h over the speed limit. As the police pulled us over, they began to shout at us in French which was a language that none of us were familiar with. Fortunately they also spoke English and we were able to sort everything out.”

To Koreans Canadians are English speakers. Indeed, Canadians often have the opportunity to go over to teach there because they are native English.

Having Apollo 18 and others are bringing these stories and these experiences back with them is providing a valuable guide for other bands.

These tours are also helping to bring more attention from audience to abroad to the Korean indie scene as a whole.

“People ask a variety of questions including the infamous, ‘Are you from North Korea?’ Most people do not know much about South Korea and ask general broad questions about it. They also seem to really enjoy soju. It is interesting.” (Soju is dirt cheap, strong Korean alcohol).

With so much of the West’s interest in Asian culture preoccupied with China and Japan, South Korea can often be forgotten or reduced to Rain and other K-Pop acts.

“They seemed surprised, but they look like they really enjoy our music.”

While Apollo 18 may have no immediate plans to tour internationally this year (yet), a number of Korean bands including Love X Stereo and Rock N Roll Radio are slated to SXSW this year and if things continue the way they have, there will be a lot more following in their footsteps as Seoul claws it’s way to credibility as one Asia’s emerging independent music hubs.

“Audiences in Seoul are different in that their style can vary much more than audiences in other countries.
Seoul audience members enjoy a large variety of music which is reflected in the uniqueness of many different styles in the indie scene.” And given how small it is in proportion to the around 30 million people living in or around Seoul and you can tell that it’s that way by necessity–you can’t be too picky about your genre when there may only be one or two bands around in any given niche.

It’s a lesson that bands like Apollo 18 and a lot of their contemporaries have come to learn to great success: don’t fit the mould, don’t copy the bands that are around and “working,” do something different, find what’s missing and fill the gap.

“En-core! En-core!” the audience chants, emphasizing the ‘en’ (pronounced in this case, as you would in Environment) as they do in Korea. They clap in time.

Apollo 18 come back on stage and having delivered all the favourites from their four releases they instead dive into Nirvana’s “Breed”. It’s fitting given that it was the arrival of Nirvana to newly democratized Korea back in the early 90’s that helped give birth to the Chosun Punk era and subsequent indie rock movement.

It’s unclear how many of the people singing along know the words, what they mean and not just how they sound but even if they don’t understand the words and are just mouthing the lyrics phonetically, one thing is clear: Seoul gets it.

And thanks to bands like Apollo 18, the world is starting to get Seoul.