SEOUL – The boys of Ulala Session originally came together because of their love of dance. As young men, however, they are now regarded for their music, live performances and backstory.
After winning South Korean TV talent show “Super Star K3″ last year, the group comprising leader Lim Yoon-taek, 31, Goon Jo, 32, Kim Myung-hoon, 28, Park Seung-il, 31, and Park Kwang-sun, 22, have been caught up in the whirlwind of fame.
They refuse to be labeled as stars, saying they don’t have the looks or the “specific” details of having graduated from years of intensive training at a mammoth entertainment agency. But in a meeting room in their new agency building in the Mapo district of northwestern Seoul, the green chalkboard detailing their schedule was almost white — filled with shows, events and commitments. They’re stars now.
For a group that remained largely anonymous until last year, the hefty schedule is not that new. Everything else — the audience, the money and the limelight — is different.
“We used to just go about and perform anywhere, even in the middle of a schoolyard if there was a stage,” Park Seung-il says. “But now we’re enjoying really good happy days where there are a lot of people who like what we do. It’s like a dream.”
“It’s happy days,” Kim Myung-hoon agrees. Then, Kim asks if he can be honest and says, “It’s a little tiring to be doing music and raising a kid.” Kim, one of the two married singers in the group, recently had a newborn daughter.
Ulala Session’s leader, Lim, was not at the interview. Lim, who is suffering from stomach cancer, captured the hearts of “Super Star K3″ fans with his story — he is married and has a child.
“I think for the audience we are approachable, unlike other star entertainers,” Kim says. “They relate to the stories of our lives, parts of which they can empathize with and share.”
The group members are invariably tied through friendship, and a passion for dance and music. Goon Jo and Lim have known each other since childhood, while Park Seung-il was a student of Lim’s. Park Kwang-sun was a fan of Lim’s, after becoming smitten with his dancing. Kim was renowned for his crooning vocals and was introduced to the other members through mutual friends.
They performed anywhere there was a stage at first, as opening acts for star singers and in live-music cafes along an upper stretch of the Han River in Misari, Gyeonggi Province. These were the days of struggle. They lived the lives of any unknown group or singers but under the strict guidance of their leader.
“Lim was strict. We thought he wasn’t human,” Park Seung-il says. But the leader’s push to constantly train his members even with the loss of sleep helped when the group had to undergo a tough “survival audition” for “Super Star K3.” The members say that the program was a hard experience and toward the end, the members had to exist on two-hours sleep a night.
“In the end, it was all about who was most set on achieving their goal and remaining truly focused on it,” Park Seung-il says.
The members were not keen on TV talent programs or looking to emulate other audition-show stars.
“We didn’t like audition programs,” says Park Kwang-sun, the youngest member. “But (Lim) Yoon-taek chose to enter ‘Super Star K3′ because he thought it was the last thing he could do for us,” Park Seung-il says.
At the time of the audition, Lim had Stage III stomach cancer and the members were focusing on his medical fees. Entering and winning the audition and its 500 million South Korean won prize (¥36.5 million) meant that the group could do something for themselves including concentrating more on Lim’s treatment.
However, the leader has not been seen in public as of late.
“Recently, there was inflammation of the organs, but he has recovered to the stage where he is now undergoing therapy again,” Park says. “Stage IV cancer is different, and Lim has shown us he can work miracles, and we are pinning hopes on him once again.”
In a way, Ulala Session provides variety in the boy- and girl-group dominated K-pop scene.
“It’s great that we are different from the idol singers. They have fans whereas we have your regular audience, grandmothers, your fathers and mothers who open their hearts when they hear us sing. That’s really good,” Park Kwang-sun says.
“I mean the idols look great when they wear makeup. Us, we only look normal when we wear makeup,” he continues. “Not many people recognize us when we go about our daily lives, and that’s also good.”
The group is now planning to release an album when Lim is able to rejoin them. They have released mini albums this year so far.
“We are strong believers in Yoon-taek and looking forward to all five of us recording and performing on stage together,” says Park Seung-il.
The Japan Times is pleased to present a series of articles about Korean pop music produced in collaboration with The Korea Times and enewsworld.com . Korea Times intern Baek Byung-yeul contributed to this article.