Punk in Seoul, South Korea: Travels and Interviews with Several Punks

Feb 06, 2014

I was in Japan for work back in October and decided that, once work was finished, I should pop across the sea to check out Seoul, South Korea for a few days.

I loved Seoul as soon as I got there. So many things to do! Friendly people! Interesting, traditional, and modern architecture snuggled right up against each other! Delicious food! I had a great time.

As is my wont, I wanted to check out a punk show in Seoul, so I did a little searching online to see what I could find. One of the first things I ran across was this article from Maximum Rocknroll: A Report from South Korea. It’s interesting and I was glad to read it, but it’s a little bit old. So, anyone planning to visit should keep that in mind (because I think some of the clubs mentioned in the article are now closed).

(The photographer for the above article, Jon Dunbar, also wrote some other stuff about the Korean punk scene here and here and here.)

The next thing I ran across was this very helpful Korean Punk and Hardcore Facebook page. A total godsend for someone like me looking for a show! Some of the info. found there is in Korean, but there is plenty in English. Besides, you can always use an online translation tool to get the gist if you don’t read Korean.

Also—very important: Seoul has a unique address system in that buildings are apparently numbered according to when they were built, not consecutively on the road, so maps are very handy if you’re trying to find someplace in particular.

For this reason, Korean Punk and Hardcore was especially invaluable, because they’ve posted tons of maps to music venues. Thanks for that!

Once I got my bearings, I headed over to a show one night at Alternative Space Moon/Mun. I had a map that I’d gotten from the link above. Unfortunately, I couldn’t fully read it, because it was in Korean, but it was still quite helpful. Despite this, I still almost passed the venue—or, actually, I did pass it. However, I turned around because I’d seen, on the other side of the street, an international punk rock sign: a bunch of folks wearing black, standing around outside smoking. So, I went back and it turned out that was the place!

The club was in an industrial-looking area with not much else going on nearby that night. Small. Bands played in the basement. It wasn't super dive-y, but leaned that way. You could bring your own (little shop on the nearby corner sold drinks), or buy a beer for a couple bucks from someone there.

The bands playing that night were:

Yuppie Killer: Video /Video/Video and band page
Chanter’s Alley: Video and band page
Assassination Squad: Video/Video and band page
…and also Heimlich County Gun Club. I believe there was one more band playing when I arrived, but I just caught the tail end of it.

I had a great time. The bands were fun, and I met some cool people who were friendly and inclusive. Sadly, I could not stay for the alleyway BBQ they had after the show, because I needed to catch the last subway back to where I was staying.

I was only in Seoul for a couple days, so I only got to go to the one show, and could obviously not form a thorough opinion of the scene. So, I decided it might be useful for the world at large if I asked a couple of locals for their thoughts and then shared them with you. The bulk of my questions went to Yongjun, who grew up in Korea and is/was in a bunch of different bands. I also threw some questions at the dudes in Yuppie Killer, as well as Ryan (a guy I met at the show), and John (from Chanter’s Alley). All of them were thoughtful enough to respond. Here’s what they had to say.

Yongjun ([email protected]):

Jennifer: Where were you born? Did you grow up in Seoul?

Yongjun: My father worked for the Korean Air Force for thirty years and because of it, me and my family have moved many times from city to city in South Korea. I went three different kindergartens, five different elementary schools, two different middle schools, one high school, and college. I was technically born in Seoul but did not grow up only in Seoul.

Korea-style pressures affected me so hard. I stayed in school for eighteen hours when I was seventeen, a junior in high school. Teachers sometimes said, “If you don’t want to fuck up your life, shut up and study. Go to better uni. If you study hard now, your future wife will be much prettier,” while swinging a club.

Probably two years ago, beating up kids in school became illegal. But, I am pretty sure that in country areas, it still exists.

One day, I saw an article or something where Obama preached about his positive views on the Korean education system. Then I thought, “I want to teach him in Korea’s educational way, just even for one day.”

Jennifer: When did you start listening to punk?

Yongjun: The first two punk bands I really loved to listen to were The Casualties and Operation Ivy, when I was eighteen-ish. I thought The Casualties were really fast, like Offspring, but the vocals were way stronger than Slayer and Operation Ivy. So I guess I thought they are just much better than Green Day. So then when I was college freshman, there was a punk club called Skunk Hell in the Hongdae area. Going to shows at Skunk Hell, many times, I found out that the band members of shows don’t pay to go through the club (also some close friends of theirs, too). Therefore, I decided to join a band or make a band.

Since I joined a band, I started digging into punk and hardcore, especially early ’80s U.S. hardcore—such as Black Flag, Negative Approach, and Circle Jerks—also late-’80s youth crew sounds and ’70s punk as well.

I listened to Siege for the first time and they dragged me into raw punk/hardcore. Then I found out about Dropdead because of its name of a song. And then a lot of fast/thrash hardcore bands in the U.S. Gauze, the Stalin, Gism, Death Side, and many Japanese hardcore punk bands. Totalitär. Then I searched for bands from the Scandinavian area and all around the world as well.

Jennifer: How did you first hear punk?

Yongjun: I guess the punk I first heard was Green Day’s Dookie. I thought it had pretty good sounds, but I couldn’t feel energy with those sounds. Slayer was holding me so tight. Then someone suggested for me to listen to the Sex Pistols and The Clash, but it was not enough to satisfy me either. I guess Slayer was just too badass to me, so I judged that punk is boring.

Back then in Korea, people were arguing about what should Limp Bizkit and Korn be called? Hardcore or rap metal or nü metal?

Jennifer: Are you in a band now?

Yongjun: Yes, BANRAN (Fast raw core), K-Rampus (d-beat and roll), koNOrrea (d-beat, punk)

I sing in BANRAN, play drums in K-Rampus, and play guitar in koNOrrea. Some members of koNOrrea are touring in the Southern Asia area now, so we have stopped it for the time being.

In the last Stop Kor EP of BANRAN, I chose the name of the EP.  I also wrote riffs. Huge influence by the band The Stalin. Also, lyrically (I hope I could understand their lyrics correctly) Selfish Korea, nationalism and thoughtless patriotism, and brainwashing with it in Korea. Extreme social pressures accompany self-destruction.

Jennifer: What are your favorite Korean punk bands, either current or past?

Yongjun:The Couch was great band (pogo, street punk).

Currently, Scumraid (noise d-beat) and Find the spot (’80s U.S. hardcore)

Jennifer: What are your favorite places to see music in Seoul?

Yongjun: There is a place called Hongdae (it means HongikUniversity). This school is most famous as an art school in South Korea. Since indie culture was started in Korea, around Hongdae, there have been a lot of people into art and music. Maybe four, five years ago, I guess by the growing number of hipsters as a world trend, it has been packed with tons of hipsters and outfitters. And especially musicians there have been turned into such boring copycats, like covering Gangnam style with melodramatic crying voice shit (both factors are damn boring anyway). Then I got tired of going there.

Mullae is sort of a factory area, I guess five subway stops away from Hongdae. Some people maybe agreed with my view about Hongdae recently, so they built up some alternative spaces for playing and exhibition.

Space Mun. I usually play there with my band and other good bands also play. I hardly see the boring things.

Jennifer: Do politics play a part in the Seoul punk scene?

Yongjun: There is very tragic shit in Korean punk history. The first hardcore generation in Korea started mid-late ’90s, I think, and some of them spoke about extreme right wing stuff: nationalism, xenophobia and homophobia, and labeling people who have a leftist stance as “North Korea’s Servant.”

The real funny thing is that some of the bands that had this extreme right wing attitude successfully escaped from obligatory military service, and some of them are hardcore Christians. They are still alive among many bystanders in the punk scene here.

Meanwhile, relatively new bands such as Scumraid and Find The Spot are pretty rad. Find The Spot kicks ass. They sharply criticize that extreme consumer Korea society and also spoiled people who were into the first generation of Korea democracy in the ’80s.

Jennifer: Are women part of the punk scene in Seoul?

Yongjun: Juyoung, the drummer of Scumraid, and Yurim, the singer of Dead Gakkhas, are women. Yeji is a great artist. She always helps me out by illustrating flyers.

Jennifer: Is there a sense of unity amongst punks in Seoul?

Yongjun: The scene is really small, so it seems that everyone knows each other, but are all divided. I have no idea the reason why; maybe because of music styles. However, I think people are very eager to be famous and be on top of the scene. I have seen real stupid power games between people in the scene many times.

Personally, I simply refuse to be with extreme right wingers, boring fashion outfitters, and opportunists. I love to meet open-minded, DIY-awakening, angry punks.

Jennifer: Are there Korean radio stations that play punk music?

Yongjun: Sadly, there are not.

Jennifer: Do you know about punk scenes in other cities in Korea?

Yongjun: In Busan there are several youth crew-style bands there. They play with metal bands there. In Gwangju, several skate, pop-ish punk style bands.

Jennifer: What kind of differences do you find between the Seoul punk scene and the punk shows, bands, and people you encountered in the U.S.?

Yongjun: In Dallas, Fort Worth, Texas, I was really surprised when I saw that punks bring their own equipment to every single gig. The beautiful DIY ethics. Passion to punk rock and scene, playing maximized rock and roll. Standing for friends—these things showed me what is real punk.

I hung with Wild//Tribe, Tolar, Spazm 151, Dead Line, and Collick. Completely fucked and many good friends of them. I really, really miss all my friends there so much!


Punks in South Korea Roundtable Interview

Tim/Vocals, Yuppie Killer
Ian/Guitar, Yuppie Killer
Graham/Drums, Yuppie Killer
Ryan/not in any band currently
John Middlemis/Main vocalist, guitarist/Chanter’s Alley since 2011 /
Heimlich County Gun Club/First Round Heroes/The Tear Jerks.

Jennifer: Where are you from?

Tim:Ottawa, Canada.

Ian:Toronto, Canada.

Graham: I grew up in Orange County, CA.

Ryan: I am from California. Brought up in San Diego. College and adult years in San Luis Obispo.

John: I grew up just outside of Detroit, Michigan.

Jennifer: How long have you lived in Seoul?

Tim: Just shy of two years.

Ian: A little over a year now.

Graham: I’ve been here for a little over a year.

Ryan: I have lived in Seoul three-and-a-half years.

Jennifer: What are your favorite Korean punk bands, either current or past?

Tim: The Kitsches, Mixed Blood, Animal Anthem, MyManMike, Genius.

Ian: Banran, The Kitsches, Scumraid, Bamseom Pirates, Genius, Find The Spot, Mixed Blood, My Man Mike, Something Fierce, and Animal Anthem.

Graham: The Kitsches, My Man Mike, Banran, Something Fierce, Mixed Blood. There’s more but I can’t think of them now.

Ryan: My favorite Korean punk bands include: Rux, The Couch, Spiky Brats (older). Currently, Assassination Squad, Rudy Guns, Oi Resolute, the Kitsches, Gukdo, the Veggers, Burning Hepburn, Attacking Forces, Ska Sucks, The Geeks, Things We Say, Animal Anthem, My Man Mike, and probably a few others I am forgetting.

John: My favorite Korean punk band would have to be the late, great, street punk group Attacking Forces.

Jennifer: What are your favorite places to see music in Seoul?

Tim: Mun in Mullae. It’s an industrial metalworking area with a great venue. It’s gritty, barren, and always a good time.

Graham: Moon. By far. It’s in an industrial area that is a ghost town at night. You can pretty much do whatever the fuck you want there. Last week after the show, there was a BBQ right in the alley. You couldn’t have that in Hongdae. Also it’s BYOB, so that’s good.

Ian: Mun (Moon), Hongdae Playground, Club Spot, Yogiga, Three Thumbs, Badabie, DGBS, Club Realize (in Busan), Lowrise (RIP), Ccotdang (RIP).

Ryan: My favorite places to see music are Mun, Club SPOT, and Hongdae park. Most punk shows are in those three venues.

Jennifer: Is there a sense of unity amongst punks in Seoul?

Tim: It’s a friendly town. The same faces always smile. The hardcore scene here is fairly tight knit, mostly because there just aren’t a lot of us.

Ian: Maybe in the sense that you and the guy at the bar pounding well drinks are united in the opinion that anybody who calls the Buzzcocks a new wave band can get fucked.

Graham: Mostly yes, I’d say. But I think I’m largely ignorant of what is really going on due to the language barrier. From what it seems, whatever dislike people have for other people or bands is caused by their own bullshit. I’m sure there is elitism afoot but, seriously, I just don’t know.

That being said, the punk scene is not one cohesive unit. There seems to be like three or four groups of punk bands that do shows together. There’s a lot of overlap, sure, but we all bring different crowds. It’s not like there’s really a chance of getting “big.” It’s just about having a good time with your friends and crushin’ hella beers—for me, at least.

Ryan: Punks are very unified here, though smaller in number than other major cities. Very welcoming of new people and friendly. There are a few nationalist bad apples who don’t like foreigners, but in general everyone gets along. After the shows, all the bands and whoever else was at the show go out for drinking and Korean BBQ until the sun comes up. Those are always some fun times.

John: Skunk Hell was one of the best places before it closed. These days Club Spot in Hongdae is a great place to see punk or hardcore. Some bands down south in Busan are also putting on some great shows.

Jennifer: What kinds of differences do you find between the Seoul punk scene and the punk scene where you grew up?

Tim: Less bullshit. There’s no gossip. There’s no fighting at shows. People don’t care how you dress. It’s a very welcoming community. I quite like it.

Ian: It’s more friendly and supportive. We all know each other, kick it, and rarely do you see any petty shit spasming across the place. Bands tend to take quite awhile longer to record and release new records. Two reasons why: Lack of infrastructure for distributing true independent/DIY music here since proper record outlets are so few and fucking far between and the mandatory military service that young men in South Korea have to go through can seriously damage any momentum a band might build. It sometimes feels like we’re in the margins of the edge of the world here. Very young, very raw, very disconnected at times—not a lot of bands tour through here and the vast majority of people going to live shows in Seoul still don’t give a fuck about this music. It’s their loss.

Graham: Shows here are lot more fun. Back home you always had to keep your wits up because some aggro fool would take your head off with his sick mosh if you weren’t looking. Here, if people aren’t just enjoying both themselves and a nice, tasty adult beverage, they’re just doing the “let’s push each other and act like idiots” thing, which I prefer immensely. I don’t think I’ve seen a single fight at a show here, whereas back home there were fights all the time. People getting their heads split, ten-on-one monkey business, all kinds of ignorant shit. Granted, this was a few years ago but I doubt things have changed. I think the lack of violence here is a testament to the relatively small size of the scene and the culture of Korea. There aren’t too many strangers. And if there are, they won’t be strangers for long.

John: There is a general sense of unity, yes. The scene is not big enough to be divided. Some of the older punks may start getting jaded or elitist, but the younger generation of punk bands have been working very well together with promoting events.

Ryan:I would say Japanese and American punks are much wilder people. Koreans in general are very calm and civil. Punks here lack a bit of playful rudeness that I miss a little.