BUSAN, South Korea — A city’s culture can be a vast source of its pride and identity. Up until about 15 years ago, underground music wasn’t a part of that equation in Korea. In 1975, the military famously outlawed rock ‘n’ roll in an effort to keep the counter-culture under its thumb. Only recently has music become a creative outlet around the country. It is now at the point where certain cities are becoming known for their individual auditory flavors.
Enter “World Famous? in Busan,” a concert series designed to highlight notable acts on the peninsula and put them on a Busan stage.
“The name itself is meant to be ironic,” says Russell McConnell, one of the original organizers of the series. “Of course these bands aren’t actually world famous… but, for one reason or another, they deserve some recognition in the “world” that is the Korean music scene.”
Previous iterations have featured such acts as the Rock Tigers (who just returned from their US tour) and Pinnacle and the Antidote (winners of the prestigious Stompers’ Battle of the Bands in Seoul).
This weekend, World Famous? in Busan returns, showcasing four bands from three different cities around Korea: Levine (Daegu), Asleep Without Dreaming and the Dillytangs (both from Jeonju). The whole evening is being hosted by hometown favorites, One Drop East.
So what makes these bands notable? Let’s start with Levine. You may have heard of them, as they recently won the honor of Groove Magazine’s Favorite Expat Band. What makes them special, however, is their dedication to their art form. Daegu is not the first place one thinks of when it comes to live music. Yet, Levine has managed to transcend that trend and create a power-pop sound that is catchy, fun and extremely listenable. It is the rare type of band that, when you hear them for the first time, you are immediately drawn into it, and at the same time a little disappointed you aren’t familiar enough with the music to sing along.
This appearance is especially notable since this will be their last time performing in Busan. They will release their debut album at the end of January before moving to Toronto to take a shot at the big leagues.
Why are they turning away from their cushy spot atop the expat band hierarchy in Korea? Says Drummer, Greg Henny, “I think we've accomplished our goals. We're about to release a CD of entirely original songs, we've played a ton of shows in different cities all around Korea, and we have a sort of name recognition now. It's really nice to have complete strangers say they came to a bar because they heard we were playing. Once we got recognized on the KTX heading down to Busan.”
One Drop East (with a sliding smile scale running from left to right)
When asked about the possibility of a recording contract offer, their already agreed upon reply is: “That sounds good.” Perhaps, Levine will truly be world famous someday.
Levine isn’t the only band debuting an album this month. Jeonju favorites, Asleep Without Dreaming, are as well. In fact, this weekend is the Busan stop on their album release tour, which is hitting every city of note in Korea.
Jeonju is a bit of a cultural anomaly. Although the city itself is home to only around 700,000 people, it somehow plays host to various prestigious art and music festivals all year long. It is a place you can sample traditional Korean culture in one of the many museums or tea-houses by day, and witness Korea’s next buzz-worthy rock act in one of its many live music clubs by night.
Asleep Without Dreaming was born in the city which, according to Koreagigguide.com, “has long punched above its weight culturally.” In fact, KBS produced a special TV program on the band. Their sound is a mellow, yet driven, alternative rock that is punctuated by passionate vocals and, at times, ethereal guitar-built soundscapes.
When asked about their take on Korea’s music scene, Drummer In-yeol Park responds with this: “There are a lot of talented musicians here, both foreign and Korean. It's a great place for people of different cultures to come together and share their ideas about music. It's really great for musicians to see things from another perspective. We'd like to think that AWD is a fusion of Western and Eastern thinking.”
The whole show will be opened by The Dillytangs, also of Jeonju. These boys have made a name for themselves as a sing-a-long party band that play both originals and covers.
Also, in their last show of the season, Busan’s own One Drop East will be holding down the late-night groove after all the out-of-town talent has finished. The night is surely going to exhibit Busan’s recently spawned renaissance in music. Don’t miss it!
The whole thing goes down at Vinyl Underground this Saturday, January 21st. Cover is 10,000 won. Check out the Facebook event page for more info. Try to arrive early as this show might easily sell out.
Asleep Without Dreaming