Interview with Ian Henderson and Michael O’Dwyer of K-pop Killers

Two months ago, K-pop Killers, a documentary exploring South Korea’s underground metal scene, screened in Seoul at the G-15 Sonnendeck night club. Directed by Ian Henderson, he and cameraman Michael O’Dwyer worked on the film since November 2016. After recently getting a chance to see the result, I had to get in contact with both of them to let them share their thoughts on this passion project.

What inspired you to start working on this documentary?

Ian: I’ve been thinking of it for 10 years, being into docs and metal, and living in Korea. I realized I was watching a fundamental shift in real time and wanted to get on it before it was too late.

Mike: I’ve actually been a bit of a blogger/writer/photographer for years and I’ve written articles about the Korean metal scene in the past like this one. When I discovered that there was a vibrant underground music scene in Korea that rivals or exceeds Japan’s I was astonished that there was almost no English coverage on it.  For years actually I thought about making a coherent documentary about it.

Why did you go with the title K-pop Killers?

Ian: Everyone hated the original working title of K-Metal, we tried to go with the band Fecundation‘s slogan Death Metal and Soju but they wanted to keep it just for them, K-Pop Killers just came to me in a moment of inspiration.

Mike: The title was literally one of the hardest things to agree on.  We really wanted a name that summed up the subject, was recognizably Korean and had an edgy metal sound. The subjects of the documentary are musicians that are trying to make music in the crushing shadow of K-Pop. K-Pop permeates Korean society in a way that’s hard to describe to outsiders. When a K-Pop idol group has a hit their images are in commercials, newspaper ads, gameshows, sing songs at sports events, etc all at the same time. So these underground musicians are the total opposite of that. They toil and actually get active resistance by people for their long hair, tattoos, etc. Ian, my partner on the project, and I would just brainstorm names until we narrowed it down to K-Pop Killers.

Fecundation at GBN Live House, 2016. Courtesy of Michael O’Dwyer

What were some of the biggest difficulties you had when making the film?

Ian: At first, technical shit, like audio levels, camera exposure, scheduling. Since then I personally have had uphill battles with audio levels, learning about festivals, etc. It’s been a steep learning curve in every way.

Mike: Scheduling. I was living outside of Seoul in a small town that was a 3 hour bus ride to Seoul. Every weekend we would coordinate plans to maximize our time together and knock out shoots, interviews, etc. And likewise trying to align our schedules with our subjects.

Were there any bands or artists you wanted to interview but couldn’t get in contact with?

IanKim Do-soo of Oathean, but luckily I was able to use an old interview of him a friend had done years ago.

Mike: Yes! Well before I moved to Korea I was into the the Korean thrash metal band, Crash. They play really infrequently these days but I saw them a number of times. I tried really hard to get in contact with them and unfortunately there was no response on their end. I think they could sense the “fanboy” vibe I must have been giving off. There are other artists that I contacted but for different reasons they felt uncomfortable speaking on camera, some of that I really think was the fear of being “outed” as a metalhead or a metal musician. That if appeared on video talking about their music they would get harassed by netizens/trolls.

Is there any particular moment in the film that you’re especially proud of how it turned out?

Ian: The sequence where Binna (ex-IshtarPsychanical Dreamers) is talking about her new pansori song and wanting to put something Korean into it, that whole sequence. And the whole ending segment, plus why they like metal.

Mike: Just the way documentaries work there’s a lot of footage that you liked but doesn’t fit in but I’m really happy overall that the stories of these struggling artists got told. If I had to narrow it down to one moment it would be the “metal noraebang/karoake” scene. A big difference between the Korean metal scene and others that I’ve encountered is that the bands and fans usually hang out and drink together after shows and that singing room full of metal heads screaming along to Metallica‘s “Enter Sandman” just encapsulated the really fun, communal vibe of the Korean scene. And that scene just encapsulates the sense of community this indie scene has. Every other room in that karaoke/noraebang (Korean word for Karaoke) bar had people singing K-Pop songs and then there’s that one room where Metallica and Dio was blasting! It was a safe space for everyone in there to really cut loose where they usually had to go along with popular things they may not enjoy. Half the room was band members and the other half were audience members and there’s no hierarchy or irony. Just pure joy from people having a good time together. It was actually a fairly common event to witness but a hard to authentically capture as you can imagine.

Which countries can we expect the film getting screened in?

Ian: Who knows but I’ve entered it into 30 festivals on every continent except Antarctica, so we’ll see. Updates coming.

Mike: That depends on a lot of things. The film is in its film festival screening stage of the independent film life cycle. These film festivals that deal with independent films have a great number of rules on screening and releases so at this point there are no plans for a “wide release” and hopefully there will be an “Internet release” before the end of 2018.

Now that K-pop Killers has finally premiered, what’s the reception been like so far?

Ian: K-Pop Killers has NOT premiered. Hence I’ve been extremely guarded about who has access to it. Festivals are prudish about this type of thing. Technically we had a “cast and crew screening” and I’ve encouraged Michael to use the same language if he shows the film anywhere. Basically the only way anyone other than festivals should be able to see it is if one of us is there in person with it. But the reception has been overwhelmingly positive. Sometimes even people really, really, love it.

Mike: With any kind of story about an “under dog”, like an underground, rebellious music scene in a very conservative country there is some kind of controversy. And the documentary tries to summarize a huge, vibrant artistic scene so not everyone is going to be shown. But nothing is perfect and I’m hoping by shining a light on the overall scene that everyone will be able to get some attention. Overall, every musician that’s seen the movie was personally touched by it.

After the screening, a Q&A session was held. Which questions stood out to you the most?

Ian: Everyone kept buying me congratulatory tequila shots, which in retrospect seemed an underhanded gift hahahaha. I got wasted, Hee-ju of Imperial Domination was wasted and trying to translate, and the whole thing devolved into a shitshow. But people said it was entertaining. I do remember someone asking where the abandoned amusement park was and Jon Dunbar screaming for me not to say cause he likes to keep all that kind of stuff secret hahaha.

Mike: I had a really interesting question, it was “What’s the most difficult thing these musicians face as underground musicians?” And a common thing I would hear from musicians was that they often received direct criticism on their appearance from strangers. Having long hair and beards for men gets you openly stared at or rude comments. Not always, but it happens, and these Korean metalheads would learn to ignore it. Women wearing rock ‘n roll/goth/metal fashion often get nasty comments or serious unwanted attention from creeps. To decide to express yourself and stand out in Korean culture is a huge act of will. In Europe, Canada, USA, etc if you have long hair and wear a metal t-shirt no one really bats an eye. They just think “That guy or girl likes metal music.” In Korea it’s much more “What is that guy doing? Who does he think he is? How dare he look like that!” That’s really what I think as a casual viewer (not someone who is into metal/underground music) would take away from the documentary. That rebellion in Korea is more difficult and a huge struggle for these artists.

Film screening in Seoul. Image source:

You’ve mentioned that the film will be available for streaming – which services will this be for? Additionally, will the film be released on DVD or Blu-ray?

Ian: It’ll be officially posted on my Norse Rage Youtube channel, since it was done under the Norse Rage production company. MAYBE Vimeo. But after the festival run I want to put it out there for free and get as much exposure as possible. And no plans for hard copies. It’s already a money losing enterprise and that would just exacerbate it. No delusions of grandeur here. I just want a good festival run, network with some people, and put it out there.

Mike: I’m really sorry I don’t have clear answers for this at the moment. All that will be decided in the future. Indie films always have a great deal of uncertainty around them that is very frustrating. For the filmmakers and audience alike. Once it’s made the rounds in festivals it will eventually be available on DVD/streaming through an online retailer like Amazon or similar service.

If you had to pick your favorite Korean metal band, which would it be and why?

IanMethod. They’re super tight, I love the style (melodic death/thrash?) and of all the bands they need to break out bigtime. In fact, the rumor mill says one of their old members quit because the band is unwilling to take the next leap and tour Europe/the States.

Mike: Oooooooh….that’s Sophie’s choice there. I can’t choose a favorite as there are so many that I just love. These days I listen to a lot of harder black metal, grindcore, and death metal so I typically have Fecundation, Seed, Imperial Domination, Method, Kryphos, Huquemsaw, Wasp Sting Danger, and Traitor in my rotation at any given time. On the melodic side I really dug Ishtar a lot. Ishtar was a band that is almost unique in Korea for their operatic/melodic metal. There’s a lot more and I’ll have to stop for now.

Aside from metal, what other types of Korean artists do you enjoy?

Ian: None really. I’m kind of interested in old mournful pansori and the gayageum.

Mike: I think the Korean indie scene in general is really vibrant and worth exploring. I really like an alt-pop band called Love X Stereo. They’ve even played in Texas at SXSW. There’s also this amazing Korean version of rockabilly, ska, and punk that is really fun and interesting. I really like a rockabilly band called StreetGuns, Guckastan Rudiestika, and classic punk band No Brain.

Earlier this year, Emma Kelly of Metro posted an article about how people who get interested in K-pop will then in turn get into Korea’s indie scene. Do you think that would include Korean metal?

Ian: Doubt it. I know a very small number of people who like both, but as illustrated in the film, they’re fundamentally juxtaposed and at odds I think.

Mike: Yes…that is my hope. That’s really my impetus for the whole documentary, my photo projects (Bleeding Kimchi), the podcast, the articles I’ve written. Everything. That there is a huge amount of international attention right now that is focused on K-Pop. And if just a fraction of that huge fan base gets interested in Korea’s indie scene that would be amazing. I think K-Pop is a very interesting genre but it’s always going to be very formulaic, processed, and built to be consumed. But if you have interest in that and you also want music that is authentic and was made with artistic intent and expression then why not dive into the Korean indie scene. Just by living in Korea I can sing a bunch of 2NE1 (an older idol band) songs off the top of my head and they’re pretty catchy. But I never listen to them when I’m thinking or want to feel a mood. And, I’m probably biased, but there is a ton of really interesting music happening in Korea that I think is just shameful that it’s not getting more attention. I see Texas bands play sloppy performances and I think about how many tight, on point Korean metal bands would just blow the roofs off the Texas shows I’ve been to.

Since the film finished, there have been many new Korean bands forming, like those part of the black metal circle Kvlt of Black Maria. Would you consider making a follow-up to K-pop Killers focusing on bands like this?

Ian: Ha! I had no idea about them. I don’t think so. You never know, there might be a follow-up in the future, but this was not only my love letter to Korean metal, but me kind of stepping out of actively going to shows all the time, etc. I’m 37 and metal is becoming just a part of my life instead of one of the major focuses. So yeah. And I’ll be leaving Korea at the beginning of next year.

Mike: Yes! I’ve been developing ideas on how to properly do that and for now I’m starting a podcast that will focus on Korean indie/underground bands. It’s here. The first episode was also to hype up a show on my photography so the band that was interviewed was Texan but after that every episode will feature interviews in English with Korean bands along with a selection of Korean indie/underground music. Not just metal, but punk, alt-pop, etc. Hoping to release an episode every 2 weeks. I’m hoping to produce more music videos in the future so hopefully I’ll produce music videos of Korean bands as well. But for right now the Bleeding Kimchi podcast will be the vehicle to tell stories that K-Pop Killers wasn’t able to due to timing.

A music video directed by Michael

Do you have any projects planned for the future?

Ian: Indeed. I just received a whole bunch of new equipment in the mail and am in pre-production on my next project. I’m not revealing what it is yet but it’s a documentary set in Korea and I’ll have the shooting in the can in the next 6 months and probably edit it from somewhere else. Basically Norse Rage Films has officially stepped up its game after dabbling for years and I’m planning on putting out docs for the rest of my life.

Mike: At the moment I’m in school trying to get my USA teacher certification so I’m a little busy but I am starting the Bleeding Kimchi podcast, as I mentioned earlier. It’s here. As well as my concert photography, music video production, etc. I’ve moved to Texas as of now and don’t have plans to make a documentary here, I am trying to get a horror movie that’s been in my head for years, onto paper. But that’s all in the planning stages. As for now I highly encourage anyone that is interested in K-Pop Killers and Korean metal/indie music to check out the Bleeding Kimchi podcast. Thanks.

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