SEOUL – At an agency studio in southern Seoul, three of the five members of South Korean pop group F.T. Island are waiting; the missing two are still at the doctor. Of those present, bassist Lee Jae Jin looks at this writer with a curious grin but becomes alert when our eyes meet. Guitarist and so-called leader Choi Jong Hoon and vocalist Lee Hong Ki are enjoying the small break in their schedule by jamming on acoustic guitars and sitting quietly as a hair and make-up crew finish styling them.
Their faces are mostly inexpressive, perhaps due to a 20-hour-a-day routine that began when their newest EP, “Grown Up,” was released earlier this month. When drummer Choi Min Hwan and guitarist Song Seung Hyun finally join the group, they all seem to relax by cracking jokes about each other’s pet peeves or latest love interests.
“I didn’t even know singers needed to go to a throat doctor until (an older singer) told me,” says Lee Hong Ki, 22, stressing both his inexperience and his expectation of a long career. “Our range of music is expanding. As a band, we’ve reached our comfort level.”
“Grown Up” may be the title of the newest project, but the five-year industry “veterans,” who have a number of top hits and popular TV drama appearances under their belts, reassess themselves in a strikingly carefree manner — with a hunger for more growth.
“In Japan, we can see how much we are improving because we write the words and the music ourselves. We sing what we really want to sing,” Lee continues. “There are so many opportunities.”
“For Korea, we have to worry about (a song’s) ‘addictiveness,’ ” adds Lee Jae Jin, 20. “Without that it’s hard to be noticed.”
Lee is referring to the particular formula of catchy hooks that seems to be driving K-pop’s success overseas, but that is pretty standard when it comes to mainstream pop. Despite the buzz surrounding the genre, though, F.T. Island shrugs off the label.
“I want our band to be known (in other countries),” says 19-year-old Choi, “not riding on hallyu (the Korean cultural boom known in Japan as hanryu) but independently.”
The band has a point — to an extent. In 2007, after its successful debut, F.T. Island moved to Japan and played tiny venues. A record deal with Warner Music Japan in 2010 only happened after the televised Korean drama “You’re Beautiful” gave nationwide exposure to Lee Hong Ki.
“The Japanese audience is so quiet,” says the vocalist-cum-actor. “You can tell the reception very clearly. We were scared (in the beginning).”
Some crticis have raised questions about the band’s musical depth due to their boyish good looks and stylized image, but 22-year-old Choi Jong Hoon decisively states that, “We ignore them now.”
Last September in Toronto, the band says it experienced culture shock at a benefit concert for victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake.
“There was a European band, where every member had a different nationality,” Lee Jae Jin says. “How did they meet?”
To idols nurtured within a strict star-making regimen, the idea of garage-band culture was rather strange.
“They seemed to have so many people around who shared a passion for music,” Lee Hong Ki adds. “We just want to make awesome music. We don’t want to think of it all as complicated.”
Lee then talks about the band’s future direction, adding that his favorite genre at the moment is punk rock.
“We want to do the music that fits our age, not sticking to one style or genre,” he says. “We want to go with our feelings.”
The Japan Times is pleased to present the first in a series of articles about Korean pop music produced in collaboration with The Korea Times and enewsworld.com.