As my exploration of new Korean music has declined in recent years I’ve come to appreciate the singer-songwriters of the Korean 80s more. When I came across Jun Bum Sun‘s solo work I got a similar, sort of soothing feeling and wanted more. With the release of Jun Bum Sun and the Yangbans‘ first album earlier this week that has finally happened. I reached out to Jun Bum Sun for an interview and he generously provided answers to all questions.
Who are Jun Bum Sun and the Yangbans?
I guess I should answer this in two parts. First, who is Jun Bum Sun? Well, I am a songwriter that aspires to be a twenty-first-century Yangban.
The actual, historical Yangbans were the aristocrats during the Joseon dynasty. I am not saying I want to be a member of the ruling class. It is the Yangban’s leisurely lifestyle, not their social status, that I admire. The Yangbans’ main job was to read Confucian classics. They were the intellectuals as well as the public servants. But their pastime activities consisted mainly of writing poetry, listening to music, and enjoying the nature. Now, I want that life. In fact, I am an academic before I am a songwriter. I studied history at a college in the US, and will be going to the UK this fall to read history at Oxford for a masters degree. My concentration is the history of political philosophy. I see myself writing historical, political stuff all my life. That doesn’t mean I have to give up my desire to write poetry and music. When I feel political, I would write in prose. When I feel romantic, I would write music. In short, I want the Yangban-style balance between academic and artistic pursuits. Not so easy to achieve in bustling, hyper-competitive, modern-day Korea.
I have been writing music for five years. Right after I graduated from high school, I lived in Hongdae for about eight months before I went to college. During that semi-gap year, I frequently performed at several Hongdae clubs with my band 놈. I also played guitar for Eastern Sidekick. This was 2010, so ESK was just getting started at the time. While I was studying in the US, I witnessed ESK’s rise to fame in the Korean indie scene. I couldn’t wait to come back to Hongdae. I graduated last year, moved back to Seoul, and recruited a new band. They are the Yangbans.
Which leads to the second part of your question: Who are the Yangbans? The Yangbans are: Choi Hyunkyu (lead guitar), Jang Wonhyuk (bass), Jun Sangyong (drums). Hyunkyu and Sangyong went to my high school, called Korean Minjok Leadership Academy. It’s a very peculiar boarding school. Among other things, our school uniform was Korean traditional costume. Wonhyuk is a college friend of Sangyong. They both go to Seoul National University. At the moment, Hyunkyu and Wonhyuk are both serving their two years of mandatory military service. But because they both have some physical issue (which is, I have to admit, not readily apparent), they are doing an alternative service at local district offices. In other words, they are public servants by day, indie rock musicians by night. This is what I envision as a Yangban-lifestyle in the twenty-first century. Sangyong is a diligent school boy who takes his ECON 101 extremely seriously. He crams for his exams in the backstage of Hongdae clubs.
For background info, I attach a couple of articles:
1. A Look Into Korea’s Most Exciting Indie Rock Band
My friend Jesse interviewed me and wrote this piece on Eastern Sidekick (briefly featuring JBS & the YBS too).
2. In His Words: Bum Sun Jun ’14 on writing in Korean and playing in English
Another interview published in my college newspaper.
3. Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
Wiki article on my high school. This is the formative experience that three members of my band share.
How does the sound differ between your solo work and your current efforts with the Yangbans?
My “solo work” can best be understood as demos. I always wanted to make my band again when I return to Korea. Although I did have a band in the US too, called The Shas, I mostly did covers with them. I continued to write songs in Korean on the side, and even released some of those demos online. The Yangbans added the “rock band” sound to my songs. Hyunkyu is a phenomenal guitarist, unlike me. He pulls out the warm guitar tone that suits my tunes perfectly. For my solo work, I had to play the electric guitar and bass myself, and even program the drum. Just by having the Yangbans play the instruments, my music was upgraded, I believe. The Yangbans also contributed to the songwriting process. Hyunkyu wrote most of the guitar licks and solos for my recent songs. Wonhyuk and Sangyong contributed ideas too.
What can we expect from your new album?
The album is titled 사랑가, or Love Songs. In Korean, it doesn’t sound as cliche as it does in English. 사랑가 is a slightly old-fashioned way of saying Love Songs. I wanted to allude to 판소리 춘향전 사랑가. The album has ten songs, which form a coherent narrative. It’s about a fictional woman named 명월. Track by track, the narrator’s emotion towards 명월 evolves, quite like how four seasons come and go in Korea. I tend to value lyrics above everything else when writing music. They are all in Korean precisely for that reason. For non-Korean speakers, suffice it to say that the words for this album should read like a history of a relationship, with much reflections on the constantly-shifting nature of love. It’s all very personal story of mine.
I came up with separate English song titles for iTunes store. Some of them, like “Last Love,” “Circle,” and “Magpie” are literal translation. Others are completely different from the original Korean title. Renaming songs in English was actually kinda fun. It reminded me of how some of the titles of Hollywood movies get totally butchered when it goes on Korean cinema. I knew that it would be impossible to deliver the same vibe and message to non-Korean speakers. But I did my best.
What sort of Yangban would you have been?
I guess I already ended up answering this question. I will talk about my musical influences then. You are right! I am a huge fan of the 80s Korean songs, especially folk rock. This is why I play acoustic guitar primarily. If someone asks me to categorize my genre, then I simply say “I don’t know… folk rock”? To be honest, I am not sure which box I belong exactly. In any case, I won’t name the big names, but my primary influence are the 80s and some 70s Korean folk musicians. I love the lyrics of that era. Military dictatorship definitely created this heartfelt desire for freedom and love. I can’t even try to imitate that. The Korea that I grew up in was too free and prosperous. I just want to sing about the things that I love now, albeit with the same sincerity and a certain dose of irony that characterized the 80s Korean folk songs.
In terms of the sound, as opposed to lyrics/attitude, I generally like most of what is popular in the Anglophone market. But in line with the Yangban spirit, I tend to prefer the bands with simple arrangement and nice clean guitar tones. Not a big fan of loud music these days. Right now, I am listening to the Eels trilogy while writing this email. I love the sincerity of Mr. E’s story.
Because this first album of mine is basically a compilation of all my works so far, it lacks a certain unity and uniqueness in sound I think. I didn’t have a master plan while writing all these tracks over four years. For my next album, I wish to try something revolutionary with sound, while further developing my lyrical tone.
And suddenly I have another reason to want to study Korean more.
Jun Bum Sun and the Yangbans’ 사랑가 got a digital release on August 5th with the CD release following on August 7th. A few of the songs have titles familiar from Jun Bum Sun’s 2012 singles, including “그대는 그 곳에” but unfortunately not “돌아간다“. The music video for “설레임 (The Seven Year Itch)” came out a day ago: