K-Pop took the world by storm with Psy’s Gangnam Style 5 years ago, and it remains the ubiquitous sound around the nightlife scene of Seoul (that and American top 40 pop). Gangnam Style has given way to other k-pop hits (4 out of 5 stores agree, Knock Knock is the tune to play while you shop), and as fun as it might be to go out and find a massive, bass thumping, k-pop performance or club, I was a lot more interested in hunting down what percolated in the alternative music corners of Seoul.
It ended up being a multi-day search. I had read about a nearby rock club, Club Funky Fresh or Club FF for short, home to some of Seoul’s only weekly rock, punk, indie, metal, and everything in between, performances – or at least from what I could track down. Not every night night, however, so two other nights I checked out a jazz club and an sleepy indie cafe.
Despite playing jazz for years during school, I haven’t sat back and enjoyed a show in a long time. There was no vocal, just pure instrumental music. I’ve never liked jam bands, but Jazz bands are something else, they play with a skill and a controlled chaos that keeps things moving, energetic, exciting, and emotional in a way that runs opposite to jam bands. It was a simple trio onstage: a bassist, guitarist, and drummer, though one song they brought out an accordion. The styles switched now and then (flamenco guitar was featured once, which was impressive, but I don’t know enough about jazz to pinpoint the others).
Cafe Bang! was the name of the indie joint. Quick aside – “Bangs” are a big thing in Korea. Bang means room, and you can go out and enjoy with a friend or group: Noraebang (karaoke), PC Bang (room full of computers), board game bang, DVDbang, and more. So technically speaking, I guess this would be Cafe Room!
I caught a couple low key bands playing to a seated crowd. It’s funny that even in South Korea the indie music felt the same, and the bands looked exactly like you’d imagine: thrift shop or normcore clothes, shaggy hair and/or scruffy look, a mild-mannered voice when addressing the crowd lacking stage presence. Their singing voices were great though. The below ground cafe looked very much like a DIY venue as well. The walls were covered with overlapping art, murals, tapestries, and other odd bits of art, and the drink options were mostly limited to what was in the fridge.
And finally, come Saturday, Club Funky Fresh was open. It was a fantastic show. I caught three bands. There may have been one before, as I arrived late after gorging on a massive Korean BBQ dinner.
The club itself was small. The crowd numbered maybe 40-50, probably ranging in age from 24-40. A couple tables of men in suits with loosened ties, a group of what looked like expat westerners, a few packs of Korean guys and girls out for the night, and a smattering of couples. In America you often get people who look like they’re dressed for a rock show, some scenesters/hipsters, some punks, some torn jeans and old band tee shirts, but I suppose Korean fashions and tastes being what they are, and the rock scene being small, you didn’t get that here. The basement bar however, looked like it’d be right at home in Brooklyn, Boston, Detroit, or even Maine for that matter.
The first band rocked hard. I couldn’t understand anything they were saying, but they had great energy. The lead singer wore torn, old jeans, a plain white tee, and sported a short mustache and goatee. He sang like AC/DC and the band played like Two Door Cinema Club. Great sound. I didn’t get their name, but they really got the crowd going.
The second band to come on was led by an acoustic guitarist/vocalist. Lower key, they sounded more like a bluesy, western rock. Still fun, though I preferred the first band,
The final band of the night was called Qu. Awesome energy and stage presence, they’re a talented and powerful group of musicians. Their sound morphed song to song, some slower, some break neck speed. I always appreciate variety from a band. It gives live shows, not to mention albums, an arc of their own. A couple songs almost sounded like Lincoln Park, but other like no one else I’ve listened to before. Even some phrases of English mixed in! The speakers were cranked up and you could feel the noise move right through you. Fantastic night.
After the show a DJ went on and continued the rock music. What was cool is that Qu hung out after the show and partied with the crowd. I professed my love, bought a t-shirt, had a beer, danced around with them, and hopefully one day our paths will cross again. I also met a Korean American in the crowd. A Californian, born in Daegu, she was working for the next two years in Korea. We both agreed it was nice meeting a fellow American with similar tastes for a change. It had actually been a while at that point since I had a conversation with another American, and to be honest, it was definitely more effort to meet and talk to locals in an open social setting than in Japan, so it was a refreshing night that way. Maybe it has something to do with Koreans being very couple and group oriented, but most likely it was simply my narrow experience in the country.
In any case, if you’re ever in Seoul, and not feeling like pop, hunt down the k-rock scene. It’s worth checking out. My ears still hummed the next morning.