BUSAN, South Korea — It’s 7:48 p.m. My eyes stray from my phone and gaze across the room. It’s quiet and peaceful, unusual for a PNU bar, but it is early. There is only one other person in the room; his stare is focused, yet vacant, and accompanied by little movement other than the odd drag of a Marlboro cigarette.
The smoke drifts up in shapes that mercifully shift my attention from the pitiful excuse for music that is 80s pop. Suddenly, the sound of bells signal the entrance of the bar owner, Liam Cullivan, who walks in through the door. He shakes my hand and apologizes for being late. He sits me down as I open up my computer to start the interview.
I start things off with a simple question to break the ice: How did âBasement’ become the name of the venue? The Basement, it turns out, was Cullivan’s first experience taking over a pre-existing bar (it was already called Basement), as he had owned bars previously in Thailand and another just west of Busan in Masan.
Koreans used to always ask me where the bar was and what floor it was on, Cullivan recalls after taking over ownership of Basement. That always gave me a chuckle.
He says the Basement used to be an artsy-fartsy bar where local expats and PNU artists could present their work. The first year had a lot of growing pains for me. Old regular customers wanted it to stay the way it was, and I had to cater for the younger university audience. Despite the resistance to change, Cullivan did not hesitate to shift the center of attention towards music, investing all profits into a new sound system.
Cullivan’s experience in the music industry is extensive, and this helped transform the Basement into a local music incubator. He’s played roadie to multiple bands, including the Ramones, Meat Loaf, Robert Palmer, Tiffany, the Wailers and Henry Grey. The real catalyst for the Basement’s success would be the introduction of the open mic on Tuesdays, suggested by his first manager, Sun Shu. This led to the debut performance of several iconic Busan bands such as Hajimama, London Scat Party, Defector Frequency, Soonshu and the Innocents, Cosmic Comics and ELI, and served as Busan’s introduction to acts from Seoul, Daegu and Daejeon’s popular Levine.
Open Mics are incredibly important for developing talent, Cullivan says. Mike and Dongha [originators of Ol’ 55’s popular open mic] are great supporters of live music. I’ve always felt that, despite our open mic being the least mature, it is where the most fun is held.
The Basement never has a shortage of mad stories, like the time Portland-based band Yat was nearly crushed onstage. It was absolute mayhem. I remember pushing small girls off the stage with deep regret because I thought the band was going to suffocate.
After my questions are answered, I pause. One question looms before I shut my laptop for the night: What’s the story behind the stripper pole directly in front of the stage? Cullivan replies, simply, People need an excuse to dance. Customers would be climbing up that even during performances. It was the best investment I ever made.
To get there: Head towards the main PNU gate, make the second-to-last right before the gate on the one-way street. Basement is on the right about a block down.
Photos courtesy of Basement.
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