As part of the KCC UK’s K-Music Festival 2013, the singer-songwriter Yi Sung-yol was invited to perform at London’s Scala venue. Yi Sung-yol has been involved in the Korean indie scene for a long time now and is often seen as one of the most respected figures on the indie circuit having been in the industry from the beginning. Originally playing as one half of the duo, U&ME BLUE, he went solo in 2003 and from there has been steadily releasing albums over the past decade. Not only does he write his own songs, but has written tracks for both Korean dramas, such as ‘Princess’ Man’ and ‘Que Sera Sera’, and for films from some of Korea’s top film directors such as Park Kwang-su’s ‘A Single Spark’ and Kim Ki-duk’s ‘The Coast Guard’. With strong, powerful melodies and lyrics, his songs reach out and appeal to many different music lovers’ tastes. As a man with many talents, he also hosts two radio shows, one looking at Anglo-American Literature, and one catering to Korean indie music, called Indie Afternoon.
Before his gig at Scala, we sat down with Yi Sung-yol for a quick chat. At this coffee table interview we were joined by Hellokpop, so check out their site too for their thoughts of the interview! Read on for our transcription of the interview…
KCM: I wanted to start by asking you a bit about yourself. I read that when you write songs, you usually write them in English first. Are you more comfortable writing in English, do you like the sound of English lyrics better?
Yi Sung-yol: All of the above I guess. I was born in Korea and raised there until I was about 14 when I moved to the US and lived there for about 10 years. I then moved back to Korea, then did that a few more times. So sometimes it’s more comfortable for me to think of the lyrics in English, American English, and sometimes it’s the other way round but it’s likely that I feel comfortable doing a demo in English, or when a song’s just starting to come out.
KCM: Is it easier expressing your feelings in English?
Yi Sung-yol: Yeah I guess so. Like I said, it’s my experience, they’re all mixed up from being in The States and from being raised in Korea.
KCM: I also saw you’ve worked on the soundtracks for lots of different films and dramas. How did you get involved with that? I see you’ve worked with some really big name directors, like Kim Ki-duk and Lee Myung-se.
Yi Sung-yol: I had a good label I guess, signed to a label that could bring in that sort of project so I could get involved with it. To be honest, that’s the reason I think. Sometimes they would like my voice and contact me first, asking if they could use my voice for their soundtrack.
Yi Sung-yol: He’s also signed to the same label [laughs]. He’s somewhat a good friend too. We don’t hang out all the time, but we’re good friends. We did that a couple of times before ‘Love and Hate’ so it was natural for me to help out.
Hellokpop: Did you get involved in the creation of that track?
Yi Sung-yol: No, I was just a singer.
Hellokpop: Not even the lyrics?
Yi Sung-yol: The lyrics…I did write the lyrics for ‘Be My Love’ if you know the song, that was the very first track that I did for DJ Clazziquai, but after that no.
KCM: A lot of your music videos seem very artistic and tell stories, do you help come up with the concepts, how much input do you have?
Yi Sung-yol: The music video that we did for the third album, I was involved from the beginning with the story. For this album, the V album, the fourth one, this time it was all somebody else, a man called Viktor Jan. He’s a media artist and I just told him to do whatever he wanted to.
Hellokpop: Do you think your fans have big expectations about your music, or do they take whatever you give them?
Yi Sung-yol: Some of them I think expect certain things, yeah, and some of them, like you said, are open to whatever I do. I can’t speak for all of them, but it’s nice to know I have fans.
Hellokpop: Do you have feedback from your fans?
Yi Sung-yol: Sure. For this album, they were like ‘well, it’s not my cup of tea’, but they embraced it because it’s something I did, and that was very nice.
Hellokpop: You probably expected you wouldn’t please everyone as the album is such a big step, it’s a big change?
Yi Sung-yol: I wasn’t really thinking about that. When I’m writing these things, I’m writing for me first so I can’t really consider all the little things that don’t involve my feelings. It’s hard to think about what the others are thinking, imagining what they are thinking.
Hellokpop: Is the new album, ‘V’, is it just an experiment or is it a new sound which defines you now?
Yi Sung-yol: That’s a hard question to answer. I’m going towards somewhere, I hope it’s a straight line [laughs]. I’m not swaying this way or that way. At this point, I’d like to say I’m on the right track. But people are saying it’s an experiment, so I did accept that definition, saying that Sung-yol is experimenting with his music. But isn’t writing music just that, experimenting with possibilities? To answer your question, I guess I’ll be experimenting with different things, but how they take it is something I cannot even guess.
KCM: You’ve been on the Korean indie scene for a long time now, how do you feel the indie scene in Korea has changed? Do you think it’s improved? Do artists get more exposure?
Yi Sung-yol: Yeah, I think so. In terms of variety there’s a huge difference. Back in the early 90s there was like a handful of bands, they didn’t know the concept of independent music or whatever, but nowadays we have so much variety within that scene, the indie scene, so that’s a good change.
KCM: Do you think it’s easier for indie bands to be more successful in Korea now than in the past?
Yi Sung-yol: They have to compete with so many different bands so I guess it’s not easier, but they have more channels to put out their music, that’s for sure. At least they know what indie is now.
Hellokpop: Do you feel you have any responsibility in being one of the oldest figures?
Yi Sung-yol: Yeah I do realise what that means. I do a radio show, only playing indie stuff on the air, which is something I guess I consider is how I’m helping out that way.
KCM: How did you get involved in broadcasting?
Yi Sung-yol: To be honest, it was offered to me and it was a paid job, so it’s something I wouldn’t normally turn down. It helps me support myself right now.
Hellokpop: You talked about being paid, how do you rely on album sales and digital sales?
Yi Sung-yol: It would be nice to sell more albums as opposed to less albums. My livelihood is not dependent on it, no, but I would like to be able to just do music and then survive I guess.
Hellokpop: Music and live shows also?
Yi Sung-yol: Yeah, live shows, that’s also important. Besides the money, that’s something that gets me going. I actually work for two different radio stations, so that supports my livelihood now, as we speak, but I’d like to in the future be able to concentrate more on just my music. Don’t all musicians dream of being able to do that?
KCM: When you were starting out, where did you find your inspiration from? As you lived in America, was it more American bands or did you have influences from Korea?
Yi Sung-yol: You forgot to mention British bands! Or South American bands or some Chinese stuff I listen to and Japanese, so it’s all a mixture of different things. When I started listening to pop tunes when I was living in Korea, there wasn’t much band music. When I moved to the US the first album I bought was an album called ‘The Works’ by Queen, I got into their stuff for a while. Then I listened to Ozzy Osbourne, then for American stuff, L.A Metal for some time. But I started playing guitar because of blues music. That was and still is a big thing for me.
Hellokpop: What was the idea behind having two live tracks on your last album? Did you want to prove something?
Yi Sung-yol: Well actually tracks 1-6 were recorded live with the full band. We did it at a club, at a venue smaller than this [Scala], but were all mic-ed as a band. We did like 4/5 takes and then we picked the best one.
Hellokpop: Why did you do that?
Yi Sung-yol: It saves time and it preserves, I hate to say this word, but it saves the essence, so I wanted to do that as an experiment.
KCM: Because the Korean indie scene seems to have a lot more bands these days, do you have any recommendations for bands just starting or any Korean bands you want people to know about?
Yi Sung-yol: Tune into my radio [laughs]. We play about 10 different artists every Sunday and get through 10 different songs at least. So like I said, we only play Korean indie music. It’s called ‘Indie Afternoon’. As for recommendations…..if you know you’ve got the talent just keep doing it. But I don’t think I’m in a position to give advice to any bands.
Hellokpop: What’s the main inspiration for your music?
Yi Sung-yol: Everyday, everyday life. Movies I watch and TV shows I watch, books I read, or anything.
Hellokpop: What about Radiohead? Cos a lot of people feel you’re similar.
Yi Sung-yol: Yeah I’ve seen tweets that compare what I’ve done for this album. Do you agree with such comparisons?
Hellokpop: Yeah I do, I think your volition is quite similar. Going from more direct music to more experimental music.
Yi sng-yol: I was very much shocked to hear that album [Ok Computer], what they’d done.
Hellokpop: Did it influence you at all?
Yi Sung-yol: I guess since you mentioned it, it comes back like a flashback. It was in there somewhere.
Hellokpop: Was it the liberty to do such music that influenced you, or was it the sound that influenced you?
Yi Sung-yol: Yeah the courage to take advantage of that liberty I guess. But for the past albums I kind of put that off. I guess now I’m more at ease to use that freedom to do whatever.
KCM: Tonight, as you’ll be performing to an audience who speaks English too, how have you chosen your set list? Have you maybe chosen songs with more English lyrics or just gone with tracks you like the best?
Yi Sung-yol: Since I look at it as a good opportunity for me to promote this new thing, I’m going to do 6 tracks from the new album and maybe 3 more from the old albums. I don’t have many lyrics for this particular album, all the songs are lyric-less almost, but they are mostly English lyrics, so I guess the audience may be more comfortable.
Hellokpop: What do you expect for tonight? Meet new people or just play?
Yi Sung-yol: Yeah just that, and interact with the audience. I don’t really expect anything.
Hellokpop: Are you happy to play here?
Yi Sung-yol: Yeah, I am!
KCM: We had a Korea Rocks tour here a few months ago, and the band Gate Flowers said the UK audiences were very lively. Do you have an expectation of how the audience will react tonight, or no idea?
Yi Sung-yol: No idea [laughs]. I just hope I don’t get booed off the stage! But that’s not going to happen as I’m sure you guys are very nice. Hope everything goes well.
KCM: While you’re in London, do you have any plans for your free time?
Yi Sung-yol: Yesterday I went down to Abbey Road and took a picture of myself crossing the road. I also want to maybe check out Tate Britain or Modern.
Yi Sung-yol was a lovely man to interview. He was very open and honest with his answers, and very welcoming making everyone feel at ease. You can see he’s clearly a man brimming with ideas and imagination, and unmistakably passionate about music; we had a great time talking with him. After a heart to heart with Gate Flowers during Korea Rocks, it’s really good to see what the veterans of K-indie are doing to help expand the genre. We’re certainly very happy to see the UK get more exposure to K-indie and rock and we ourselves are discovering many new and wonderful bands! We’d like to thank Yi Sung-yol for chatting with us before his show, and also to thank the KCC for organising the day!