BUSAN, South Korea – One common cultural refuge for expats of any stripe has, historically, been music. And at this point, we don’t care if it’s a Coldplay cover band, a street jazz trio on the Gwangan strip, or belting out Rebecca Black at a Noraebang some Saturday night.
But something different has been happening the past few years: Busan music is growing up. Five years ago, you’d be happy to witness the drunken open mic warbling in PNU. Soon after, original music started seeping onto the scene, as bands formed and composed their own material. The desire to share experience through song has now come full circle and a curious new trend has developed. In these past six months alone, no less than nine local acts have released professional-quality studio albums.
One Drop East, arguably the most popular expat band in the city, just released their own CD, On Home Ground. To the uninitiated few, the name holds less significance than a midnight KBS infomercial. But for those who have witnessed Busan’s own reggae/soul/funk machine in person, the uttering of those three syllables quicken the pulse and conjure blurred recollections of groove-induced ass-shaking. After four years, they’ve conquered the 2009 Busan Battle of the Bands, single-handedly salvaged the Daejeon Rock Festival after a police shutdown, and treated revelers to a marathon four-hour set on New Year’s Eve.
As they are already accomplished performers, why spend all the money and time on such a venture in this inherently temporary and transient scene?
“Everything in life is temporary: different phases and people,” says Ben May, drummer for One Drop East. “Much like the music from seminal periods of your life – listening to songs with friends in high school or university – when you hear them later, you think back to those times and it's special to you. These songs represent this time for us, and years from now, we can listen to them and enjoy the memories.”
One Drop East on the sands of Gwangan Beach (photo by Ben Weller)
Mike Laveck, recording engineer and producer for On Home Ground as well as several other discs, sees it as a natural step to take in the creative process. “When people start doing original material, you kind of want to document that.” Laveck, a well-known musician and sound-engineer, maintains his own home recording studio in the Kyungsung area.
Along with the One Drop East release, he has produced albums from Poko Lambro, The Defector Frequency, and John Bocskay, among others. He started his label, Mica Mountain Works, after being dissatisfied with a local studio’s insistence on taking too many creative liberties with his own recordings a few years ago. As hobbies sometimes tend to take over one’s life, he devoted a large part of his time and money to build up his studio, and now helps others put their own projects to plastic. He even hosts regular, informal jams to further fine-tune his skills behind the console.
However, recording needs not to be only about proper microphone placement and the latest version of Protools. Many artists happily take to whatever means they have at their disposal. With minimal spending and creativity, albums can be recorded, produced and distributed with relative ease. Longtime local favorites, Hajimama, recorded their first album all on their own with whatever gear they could borrow or bargain for. The album, Banned in North Korea, was easily made available to the masses through the online publishing site, Bandcamp. The group begins work on their second album this month.
The same route was taken by singer-songwriter-guitarist, Trey Yip, who has recorded several compilations which he sells on iTunes and Amazon.
Clockwise from top left: John Bocskay, Trey Yip, Poko Lambro and Lhasa
Another option for would-be recording artists in Busan is the indie artist collective, tucked up in the hills near PNU, known as AGIT. Well-known for hosting traveling artists of every discipline, exhibitions, graffiti-themed BBQ’s and the popular city-wide summer concert series, Sound Picnic, AGIT also boasts a recording studio which is partially government-subsidized. Lhasa’s ^?^?^?^?^?^?^?^?^ (that’s the album title) and Sleepstalker’s Aisle, both, were recently recorded and produced by the bands themselves at AGIT’s studio. The projects were so successful, that there is now talk of launching a legitimate label through the artists’ network.
Ever since Edison invented the phonograph, musicians have jumped through countless hoops to get their art recorded and reproduced. It is no surprise that, in this modern world ruled by 1’s and 0’s, they take full advantage of the relative ease by which this can be accomplished. And if these recordings are regarded by their authors as a testament to time spent abroad, it is in good fortune we fans can regard them as such as well.
If you are interested in recording your stuff, you can contact Mike Laveck through his website here.