"There Is No Such Thing As A Perfect Band!" Clash Meets Se So Neon
Of the many ways one can describe Se So Neon, one always comes back to the words ‘unexpected’ and ‘awkward’, but not in a discouraging sense, particularly the latter. Maybe it’s a force of habit, after usually catching acts in the middle of a promotional frenzy, to expect a certain blitz and polish.
The absence of it here is stark, mirrored in the nondescript surroundings of the room they’ve chosen to conduct this interview and in their erstwhile sartorial sense. They are wrapped up in the physical manifestations of the comfortable pause between bustling moments: hoodies.
Vocalist and leader Soyoon’s almost covers her face. Her signature glasses still peak out, though, a subconscious sign of being ‘on’. Fresh off of a pan-Asia tour and gearing up for the release of their new single, 'Home', with a fresh line-up, they’re not doing anything. That’s perhaps why, like an insistent cat, the initial hesitation sits in the middle of the large table they occupy.
“We just sort of started,” says Soyoon about the band’s formation through our translator. She’s the de-facto speaker of the evening; comes with the job description of the leader. “Not through busking, but through an open mic. The venue kept calling us back, so we kept going and performing.”
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That was 2016; not that long ago, but a different era altogether in some ways. After building up a loyal base of fans over the course of a year, Se So Neon officially debuted in 2017 with the single 'Long Dream', followed by their acclaimed EP 'Summer Plumage', a poignant exploration of millennial hopelessness and ennui that pulled them out of their usual circuit and into a carousel of performances, both on TV and at festivals, eventually culminating at the 2018 Korean Music Awards, where they won Rookie of the Year and Best Rock Song of The Year.
On an episode of the SBS show Hyena on the Keyboard shortly after, the words “hottest indie act from Hongdae” were used as an introduction. Something about Soyoon’s unique adenoidal voice giving words to arbitrary dejection stuck, and eventually stayed.
Now, Se So Neon has had an uphaul. Early into 2019, two-thirds of the trio - members Fancy Moon and Kangto - left for their mandatory military service, a prerequisite for all able-bodied South Korean men before they reach 28 years of age.
Shortly after, members Park Hyunjin and U-su were brought in - or rather, scouted and recruited personally by Soyoon through Instagram - on the bass and drums respectively. “When I joined [Se So Neon], I kind of had this feeling that just by having the three of us together, something was going to come out,” U-su recalls.
“It's actually only been around a year since I got exposed to rock and started listening to it,” Hyunjin adds. “I was very curious about how me coming from a non-rock background is going to affect Se So Neon's musical style. I have been noticing a kind of change in the way I play.”
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The balance between their personalities is dizzying: Hyunjin is shy, augmenting his calm, soothing tone with a smile at the end. U-su, on the other hand, with his wiggling fingers and wriggling self, captures frenetic energy in his body. The fulcrum is Soyoon, who swings from accentuated hums between words to sputtering giggles. There’s an intelligent equilibrium: Hyunjin and U-su defer to Soyoon’s expertise while she pushes them to pitch in. There are no traces of finding their footing; there is only diving in.
“I believe that there is no such thing as a perfect band,” Soyoon explains the band’s dynamic. “You're going to have to continuously work together to build momentum. Even though this change was very recent, we have sort of reached this point of understanding each other when we play. It's very non-verbal. It's not something we can describe, but we immediately know it as we're performing.”
If the band’s latest single, 'Home' was supposed to be a litmus test, they’re in the clear. The music video for this ethereal, 80s-inspired psychedelic extravaganza hums with palpable disappointments of missed targets and lost places. Primitive 3-D models and images meld into one another, not unlike the way timelines blur when recalling old memories.
“I wrote the lyrics after feeling so frustrated and worn out about living in such a "city" city,” Soyoon explains. “Very urban and developed landscapes: it feels stuffy, everything gets caught up. Everything is very fast. Just to have somewhere that you can return to is so valuable.”
Throughout the song, Soyoon, Hyunjin and U-su hover on the periphery, holding the narrative together with a sound that’s sharper than anything Se So Neon’s attempted before.
Where previous hits like 'I’m Watching A Loneliness Just Arisen' leaned more towards introspective jazz, the psychedelic influence on 'Home' is stronger, almost pungent in its clarity. It’s a new sound that marries the genre they call home with what has come to be their ethos: talking about the drained millennial. In many ways, Se So Neon embody the zeitgeist of Korean indie music, which found success in concentrated geographical pockets in the early to mid-90s, thanks to the rise of live venues and festivals.
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After the Asian Financial Crisis triggered a restructuring of business models and socio-economic climates, most of the acts and venues who had found grassroots popularity folded. The neo-liberalist thought school that followed brought its own slew of social problems for youngsters and recent graduates - who fuelled the indie scene - unemployment being the primary one. Artists who followed thereafter - particularly ones who came of age in this era - thus had a different lens, having inherited collective generational anxiety.
It’s why Se So Neon hits a taut nerve: the mundanity of events finds a place in their music. Hopelessness is a way of life, but it’s not the cynosure; a quasi-impressionist image of the lethargy that constantly follows us.
“Every time I write lyrics, I try to captivate as many stories that are relevant to me, what's going on at the moment, what I'm thinking about, what I've heard. That kind of reflects in terms of how it turns out, in the form of the lyric, or the melody, that inevitably reflects the life I'm living and what goes on in it,” says Soyoon, who is the band’s primary lyricist.
“Instead of being in the position of a person, and being a part of that phenomenon, I try to be one step removed,” Soyoon elaborates. “I observe certain phenomena or syndrome or what the person is going through but I narrate it through our perspective rather than that person's perspective.”
At one point, the term “Millennials’ band” is coined, and they enthusiastically agree to it being a part of their identity as a musical act, and the weight it carries. “Maybe making mundane things romantic isn't something that I actively try to do, but in an album, I always try to reflect as much of the stories that are ongoing, something I have observed or heard,” she says. “That's why with every album, the worldview sort of shifts.”
Part of this comes directly from being part of a largely marginalized music subset, a belated hangover of the financial crisis. As the nation adjusted to new practices, numerous music venues closed or relocated to cheaper zip codes, thus leaving slim pickings for acts. At the same time, the pop industry - which had by then adopted the All-in-one model that created, managed, and promoted pop stars - tapped into the power of high-speed internet and digitization and leapt ahead.
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What this left was a vacuum of financial security, a common struggle, according to Se So Neon, although Soyoon describes it with a light-hearted, albeit resigned chuckle: “No money.”
“It's prevalent with every act. It's a phenomenon; it's a challenge that you always have to face if you want to do something the way you want to,” she adds. She continues:
“I define independent as making the music that you want to make and have fun doing it. That’s sort of what the bare truth of it is. We don't try to make music that is loved by the world. If we don't get a 10/10 or if we get to hear back from half of it, that's more than enough for us.”
“It's not about not having enough creative spaces, it's about the financial challenges that come with it. You never get enough ripples to get enough mainstream feedback, but that's not what we want.”
There’s keen ambivalence about the word ‘mainstream’: they agree it’s largely a symbiotic relationship that indie shares with its more popular counterpart - with mainstream acts supporting indie artists and thus bringing audiences - but to them, there is a clear difference between validation and expansion.
“There are business models that are designed to target the mainstream audience, whatever that may refer to. But, even when - and there are multiple occasions -- we were mentioned by mainstream musicians or artists, I didn't necessarily feel grateful for being validated by said artist, but rather grateful for their influence or coverage, like how much impact can we make,” she explains the difference between the two.
“It's a more a good focus rather than a person holding the power to decide what is cool and what is not. It's not about who is validating our music: it's about the kind of impact or focus or influence we could get through this person,” she continues. “That didn't necessarily feel unfair on my end. The person who, say, sends a shoutout, is also a member of the audience.”
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The cognitive shift that Soyoon talks about is already becoming a precursor to change. Over the last couple of years, various indie acts, including Se So Neon, have approached this complex relationship with mutual respect, thus opening up avenues for diversification.
There are no hard and fast expectations, but Se So Neon is happy for what they get:
“Even feedback from a certain target of audiences or certain types of folks who love our music, that's more than enough for us.” “It's kind of trying to build more momentum and coverage in terms of audiences while continuously trying to make what we want to make, with the ongoing financial thing - that's already a lot to juggle.”
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Special thanks to Suh Chae Lin for translating.
Words: L. Singh
All Photography: @KidMeddling
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