South Korea has, in recent years, sprung from a place of relative cultural obscurity to becoming an undeniable music powerhouse, producing everything from global icons BTS and BLACKPINK to viral hits “Gangnam Style” and “Baby Shark.”
But what else does Korean music have to offer? A first-time traveler to Seoul is hardly going to feel that they’ve arrived in a K-pop paradise, greeted as they are by a city far more imposing and steely than TWICE’s summer hit “Alcohol-Free” might have them believe. A culture that’s at once deeply traditional and intensely modern, South Korea is much more than what you see in K-pop music videos and K-dramas.
So, what’s really going on here? What lurks beneath the shiny veneer?
Scratching just a little beneath K-pop, indie music lies in wait. Mention “indie music” to the average Korean and they’ll instantly have a certain sound in mind. Indie has been around for a long time, but around the middle of the last decade, bands like Busker Busker and HYUKOH captured the public’s attention through various TV appearances, and an industry has since shot up in their wake.
Slick production values and syrupy vocals have come to define the popular conception of indie music in 2021. Where K-pop offers fantasy and escapism, the growing K-indie industry is centered on more grounded, relatable types of idols. A prime example of one such idol would be Se So Neon’s Hwang So-yoon. A new breed of Korean pop star, she exudes a kind of Janis Joplin cool underplayed by a recognizable normalcy. Meanwhile, bands like Silica Gel and Adoy make a kind of studied and clean pop, just on the right side of innovative, that’s pushing them further and further into the mainstream.
While the main K-indie aesthetic is somewhat prescribed, there are notable outliers who have found inexplicable success. Busan surf rockers Say Sue Me and the mysterious lo-fi shoegazer Parannoul are sonically far removed from their glossier domestic contemporaries but both are more well-known and admired abroad.
These bands point the way towards another layer of the indie scene with a more organic mentality: the underground bands of South Korea. A deeper dig will inevitably lead us to one place—in the world of Korean counterculture, all roads lead to the Hongdae district of Seoul, the mecca of all types of creatives.
It’s been this way since the late 90s and in the early 2000s, when bands such as Crying Nut and No Brain spearheaded a grassroots indie movement that took them to the very pinnacle of public adoration. By all accounts, this was the golden age for Hongdae and Korean bands who were uncompromising, creative, and fully independent.
Since then, successive generations of indie scenes have brought their own spin on and reactions to a rapidly evolving South Korean society, through a fierce drive to express their own unique take on the world around them.
Continuing through to today, without any particular trend to follow, there’s a real sense of “anything goes,” a Wild West mentality where bands are free to play whatever style or genre they want, so long as it’s done from the heart.
The new cohort of bands very much continues to embody this mindset—from the grungy scuzz of Riot grrrl-esque Beacon, to the poundingly danceable Youthlim and the wall of searing post-rock that is Desert Flower. These bands take their art into their own hands, and as such, they are united as a scene, not by genre but by outlook and attitude: indie by philosophy over aesthetic.
In one of the most homogeneous societies in the world, going against the grain is a particularly challenging thing to do. Yet a select few do just, making way for a particularly dynamic and varied music scene.
So you want to get into… popular Korean indie music?
Introducing the bands that stand at the forefront of the future of Korean music. When K-pop wears you down, these guys have you covered. First, we encounter HYUKOH, perhaps the most successful indie band of recent times, and find ourselves at the precipice of where this new wave of Korean indie sound originated, and where it’s going. Then there’s Se So Neon, a showcase for a whole new kind of Korean icon that crosses pop sensibility with genre-blending bluesy guitar solos. As the playlist moves on through the likes of 10cm and JANNABI, the true sounds of the South Korean cafe are there with you, wherever you may be.
Listen to this when you’re… looking to impress your coworkers at an evening karaoke session.
You’ll dig this if you like: Coldplay, Ed Sheeran, Maroon 5, Adele, Beyoncé
Playlist: “TOMBOY” – HYUKOH / “NAN CHUN” – SE SO NEON / “Kyo181” – Silica Gel / “Baby” – ADOY / “Gibberish” – Alary-Kansion / “Americano” – 10cm / “After a tumultuous night” – JANNABI / “What a Wonderful World” – PARKMOONCHI, Young K / “Ray” – Kim Sawol / “0415” – Yerin Baek
So you want to get into… underground Korean indie music?
The South Korean underground is populated by bands who live only for today, banking everything on just one more night of burning it at both ends for the hell of it. From the indecipherable sounds of Look Purple Star’s transcendent trio of controlled chaos to SUDAL’s lo-fi one-two gut punches, the sounds here come from a steadfastly DIY place, each band establishing their own role in that space yet answering to no genre but what feels right at the time.
Listen to this when you’re… looking for that one band that only you know.
You’ll dig this if you like… Car Seat Headrest, Pavement, The Strokes, My Bloody Valentine, The Replacements, Animal Collective, Mogwai, The Cribs
Playlist: “I am a bear” – SUDAL / “Sunstroke” – Youthlim/ “(Across the) Unisex” – Sark / “Old Town” – Say Sue Me / “Time travel” – Look Purple Stars / “Jaguar” – 2 Day Old Sneakers / “Cold noodlin’” – Sick Jeff / “Analogue Sentimentalism” – Parannoul / “The King of Dance” – The Next Generation / “The Universe pt ii (Unsaid)” – Desert Flower
So you want to get into… folk Korean indie music?
At the other end of the spectrum, nestled deep in the darker alleyways of Old Seoul, a very different style of musician lurks. The recent revival of acoustic music in South Korea harks back to protest songs of the 1980s, when folk songs were the beating heart of a pro-democracy movement pushing against the last throes of a dictatorial government, and when K-pop as we know it was just a glimmer in the eye of some would-be cultural tycoon. This time, the protest is one of form, the likes of Ye Ram and Xeuda playing music with a heart that seems to have been forgotten about in the heady rush for dazzle that is pop music. Meanwhile Kim Il Du and GOKDOO sound like actual time travelers from a Korea long gone.
Listen to this when you’re… getting lost at night in a new part of town.
You’ll dig this if you like… Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, Neil Young, Captain Beefheart, Beck
Playlist: “Over The Sea” – Ye Ram / “Until I’m 88 Years Old” – Kim Il Du / “Living Things” – Siot and Breeze / “Atopy” – Lee Hyungjoo / “A Certain Day” – Xeuda / “Makgeolli” – GOKDOO / “I Am” – YUHA / “Still We Are” – Kang Asol / “Arirang” – Yeoyu And Seolbin / “Believer” – Jinu Konda
So you want to get into… punk Korean indie music?
Punk music is tried and true the world over and South Korea is no exception. A roaming caravan of partying bands and wasted fans roll up whenever these bands play. Unlike other bands mentioned here, who opt for metaphor and romance in their lyrics, these punks take a steady aim at Korean society and raze it with unambiguous political takedowns. Billy Carter kicks things off with a scathing tour through everything they feel is unjust about their country—racism, sexism, homophobia. And the seasoned likes of Vanmal play tightly wound three chord spiky romps through pop punk with a specific Korean edge. Elsewhere, Beacon supplies the grunge, whilst up-and-comers Merry Hey Day and Dead Chant show that this scene has legs for days.
Listen to this when you’re… loading up for a hard night out.
You’ll dig this if you like… Black Flag, Fugazi, X-Ray Spex, Green Day, Hole
Playlist: “I See You” – Billy Carter / “Trash” – Beacon / “Rich Family’s Dog” – Vanmal / “Young And Stupid” – Merry Hey Day / “I’m a Fool” – Dead Chant / “Goodbye Song” – RUMKICKS / “Tiny Hope” – Idiots / “Sixty-Eight, Twenty-Two” – …Whatever That Means, Jonghee Won / “Your Crush on Me” – No Brain / “Struggles” – Smoking Goose
So you want to get into… legends of Korean indie music?
Looking back to the turn of the century, K-pop and Indie bands, believe it or not, were on similar footing when it came to popularity. The band Crying Nut, in particular, would share TV slots with the earliest purveyors of what we now know as K-pop. Their song “Oh! What a Shiny Night” is South Korea’s very own “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a 2001 song that crossed over into the cultural subconscious and survives to this day as a karaoke favorite of teens and salarymen alike. The Black Skirts struck gold a decade later with an introverted pop twist on Weezer-like emo, Asian Chairshot dragged traditional Korean stylings up from the grave and shoved them through cranked guitar amps, while Danpyunsun and the Sailors left those same Korean stylings much untouched, save for a twist of modern freak-folk edginess. These bands are still active in one way or another today, casting a watchful eye over the writhing throngs of future generations.
Listen to this when you’re… reminiscing what might have been.
You’ll dig this if you like… The Smiths, Weezer, The Cure, Devendra Banhart, Dinosaur Jr., Mudhoney
Playlist: “Antifreeze” – The Black Skirts / “Ready” – Wedance / “Round and Round” – Asian Chairshot / “Psycho” – Galaxy Express / Walk with Me – Danpyunsun and the Sailors / “Blanket World” – Uhuhboo project / “Breaking of the Day, Today” – 3rd Line Butterfly / “Suck You Asshole” – Yamagata Tweakster / “Too Much Sunshine” – CHS / “Oh! What a Shiny Night” – Crying Nut
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