BUSAN, South Korea – Punk rock has always faced an uphill struggle when competing for the respect of the ‘serious music fan/critic’ type. The simplicity and energy that defines it always leaves it vulnerable to the critics who will take the easy way out by describing the band using the various formulaic clichés that they accuse the bands, often wrongly, of holding too dear.
The truth, however, is that creativity comes not from absolute freedom, but more often from working within a set of given parameters, and it’s that tension between the constraints of the genre and the relentless self-assertion of individuality and self-determination that make up its thematic substance that have kept it vital for almost 40 years.
Like any genre, for every great band there are 50 forgettable ones. The difference between the two is not the idle worship of novelty and experimentalism-for-its-own-sake that make up far too much of the hipster band-of-the-moment mentality in current music scenes, but in the ability to make a hundred good, yet small decisions in a song only 2-3 minutes long.
That’s where the real depth of the genre lies and …Whatever That Means have proven adept in making those decisions. This is a band that song after song, without explicitly stating it, shows a prolific awareness of the genre in even the most deceptively simple little flourishes scattered throughout each track of their 6-song EP ‘The Newest Hope’.
This Saturday, they will be finally making their Busan Debut at Club Realize coming down from Seoul along with the very, very cool ’77-style band ‘The Swindlers’. I caught up with singer and rhythm guitarist Jeff Moses for an interview.
Could you tell us how the band came together?
Honggu and I started the band as a single-show project. Trash and I were having a punk show as our wedding reception. I’d been in Korea for almost two years and hadn’t started a band yet, but I wasn’t about to put on a great punk show and not play so Honggu and I decided to throw something together. That’s where our name comes from actually. When the flier was made, we knew I was going to play with someone but didn’t know who so where the bands were listed, it just said, “and Jeff…Whatever That Means”. Anyway, I had two songs that I’d written (Peace of Mind and Never Be The Same), and then we played a couple cover songs. A friend from home flew over to be my best man. He played lead guitar, and we had a guy I worked with at the time play bass. We had a really good time, so Honggu and I decided to set up something more permanent when Trash and I came back from our honeymoon.
Who are the main influences for …WTM?
Most of our biggest influences have come out of the Southern California punk scene. Bands like Bad Religion, Face to Face, The Descendents and ALL are major influences, but Gob (from Canada) is another big influence. More recently, we’ve been listening to a lot of the new pop punk bands that are coming out of the US like Teenage Bottlerocket, Banner Pilot and Nothington.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of having both Koreans and foreigners in the same band in a scene that can sometimes be polarized?
I think we get the best of both worlds. We have an understanding of how the Korean scene works and good connections, but we also know what foreigners want when they come to a show which really helps when we’re booking events. But I mean, when it comes down to it, having Koreans and foreigners in the band isn’t something we planned out. It just happened naturally, so it’s not something we really think about.
If I remember correctly, some of your first experiences as a band were Battle of the Bands competitions. How do those kinds of shows compare to normal ones, especially for a newer band?
The Battle of the Bands at Stompers was a great experience, and we didn’t really know what to expect. We had only been together a couple months and hadn’t played any big shows. When we played there, it was the biggest crowd we’d been in front of. At first it was a little intimidating, but people really got into it and we made it through our round to the finals. That was a huge confidence boost for us. I mean, it was disappointing when we didn’t win at the finals, but we had a great time. As far as the other events like that we did at other bars, they weren’t that great. Stompers is the only one we’ll be doing again this year.
How did the Malaysia/Southeast Asia tour come about?
I got a random friend request on Facebook from a girl, Jane, who knew The Geeks from when they were in Indonesia. She and her friends do a lot of the booking down there. At that point, we had already decided that we were going to tour somewhere. We were thinking about China, but after talking with Jane about it, we decided to head to Southeast Asia. We were supposed to play in Indonesia and Singapore too, but those shows got canceled at the last minute.
What was that experience like?
It was a bit of a roller-coaster ride. We had some amazing shows, some awkward shows and a couple downright, “I wish we weren’t here” shows, but overall, it was a great experience. The amazing shows totally made up for the disappointing ones. We met great people and learned a lot about what it takes to book a tour. We definitely want to do it again and have a better idea how to do it more successfully this time.
What can you can tell us about 'Not A Phase'?
“Not A Phase” is a documentary by our friend Ji Jun about underground music in Malaysia and our tour there. The idea came from “Another State of Mind” which is the old, homemade documentary that followed Social Distortion and Youth Brigade on their first DIY tour back in the early 80s. We thought it’d be fun to have someone come along and do something similar. Ji was looking for a project to work on and decided to do it. He’s hoping to have it finished by December or January. Info is available on the film’s Facebook page here.
Earlier this year you released an EP 'The Newest Hope'. What was the recording process like and how did the song selections get chosen?
We recorded “The Newest Hope” at Under The Bridge Studio near the Hongdae/Sinchon area. I really enjoyed recording. Basically, we did everything one instrumental track at a time. Honggu went in first and recorded all the drums with a metronome. Then we added all the other instruments one at a time–bass, rhythm guitar, vocals, and finally lead guitar. As far as song selection, we had a lot less songs when we started recording. We just picked out the ones that we thought best represented what we were doing.
There is definitely a very 'Descendents'-ish flavor to a lot of the songs. Was that a band that everyone could agree on as a starting point when you first started writing?
The Descendents is definitely a band that we all really love and has been a big influence on us. We actually played a Descendents cover at the wedding show, but we never really sit down and say, “Hey, let’s write a song like this.” Most of our song ideas just kind of randomly come to me while I’m driving around on my scooter or screwing around with my guitar at home. I’ll get a short guitar riff or a few lines of a vocal melody in my head and just build from there in whatever direction feels the most natural. Then, I bring in the basic outline of the song to practice, and we work on it together to figure out where it needs guitar leads/solos, vocal harmonies and what the bass and drum lines should be like.
Speaking of the Descendents, your T-shirts seem to be a very intentional nod to the cover of their classic 'Milo Goes to College’ album with a picture of drummer, Honggu, with his hands in the air. On your shirts, fliers and whatnot, how did Honggu end up being the sort of 'iconic' member of the band?
Well, who doesn’t like Honggu, right? Have you ever met anyone who knows him and is just like, “Man, I don’t like that guy?” At the wedding reception show, we randomly joked about how it’d be funny if we made a logo where Honggu looks like Milo. Then, we just kept doing it with all our new logos. It works and it’s funny. Although, honestly, part of it is because Honggu is a little shy and it embarrasses him.
Do you have any favorite places to play?
There are a few. In Itaewon, Olde Stompers Rock Spot is definitely the best venue, and when it’s a really busy Saturday night, the crowd is excellent. In Hongdae, there are a lot of great venues. We have a really close relationship with Club Spot, and they let us do pretty much whatever we want so we’ve had a lot of great shows there. I also like playing at FF just because there are usually a lot of people in the crowd who have never heard us before so that makes it fun.
What bands in Korea do you recommend and who do you like playing with?
My favorite bands in Korea are 99Anger, SkaSucks, Things We Say, The Geeks, Shellback and Rux. We’ve played shows with all of them and it’s always been a good time. I like playing shows where there is a little diversity in the lineup. During our first year, we played a lot of shows where all the bands were hardcore except us so that was a little awkward, but when you get a good mix of punk and hardcore, that’s my favorite thing to do.
There has been talk of an upcoming full-length album. What can you tell us about that?
It’s definitely part of the plan. We will be recording at a different studio, but haven’t decided where yet. We’re going to do some trial tracks just to make sure we can get the right sound wherever we go and then, start the real recording process. I’m hoping we can start recording sometime in October, which would probably mean a release date around the beginning of 2011. We’ll be recording about 10 new songs, but we weren’t completely happy with the sound on our EP so we’ll be re-recording a few of those songs, too. Whether we self-release again as World Domination, Inc. or release with a local Korean label will be decided later.
Finally, what more can you tell us about …WTM's plans for the rest of the year?
We have a bunch of shows coming up. We’re playing in Busan on Sept. 4th, in Daejeon in October, and we’re booking another Halloween costume party/punk show at Club Spot on October 30th. Beyond that, we have a bunch of new songs we haven’t started working on yet, so we need to get caught up on those before we start recording. That’s about it for now. Anyone who wants updates can check out Facebook or Myspace pages (we update Facebook much more regularly):
For more info on Club Realize in Kyungsung go here.