South Korean punk band Gumx regroups after military service

by Shawn Despres

“Gumx is back!!” proclaimed the T-shirt for Seoul punk band Gumx’s short Japan jaunt in late February. The band’s first foreign gigs in more than three years, it had good reason to be excited about returning to the live circuit in its biggest market.

Its hiatus from touring was not by choice. One of more than 70 countries with mandatory military service, South Korea requires all men between the ages of 19 and 29 spend a minimum of two years in its armed forces. Having delayed their Constitutional commitment until they were 25, the trio enlisted in March 2005. Drummer Choi Gun was the last to complete his duty, in August 2007.

“It was s**t,” groans frontman Lee Yong Won before the band’s show at Seoul punk venue Club Spot. “It was our obligation as Koreans. I just wanted to play guitar, but I couldn’t. It was frustrating.”

South Korea recently announced that the army enrollment period will be reduced to 18 months by 2014; this move was in response to complaints about the effects on education and employment possibilities, as opposed to bolstering the country’s growing music scene.

“Korea’s president, Lee Myung Bak, doesn’t give a damn about culture,” says bassist Lee Keun Young. “Korea doesn’t like rock music.”

Formed in 2000, Gumx realized it would have to look outside of South Korea’s underground community to make it as musicians. Securing a spot on Fuji Rock’s Red Marquee stage in 2003, it quickly cemented a fan base for its mid-90s-influenced skate punk and completed several tours, at home and in Japan, behind 2003’s “What’s Been Up?” and 2004’s “Green Freakzilla?” before donning fatigues.

“Yong Won was in the infantry, Gun was in the marching band and I was an honor guard, but changed jobs and became a military cook,” explains Keun Young.

“Yong Won’s platoon leader was a big fan of the band and because he loved Gumx so much, he gave harder training to Yong Won than to anyone else. While other soldiers were allowed to rest, Yong Won had to continue running every day until he was completely exhausted. They eventually became good friends and when his leader was discharged, he became a music writer for a Korean rock magazine with Yong Won’s help.”

Situated in different regions and forbidden to use cell phones or e-mail, group members kept in contact through letters. Determined not to disband, they continued to play music on their own whenever the opportunity arose.

This wasn’t easy, as compact barracks were shared by as many as 20 soldiers, and although personal hobbies were permitted, those who chose to do their own thing were often verbally and occasionally physically abused by fellow troops.

“The army is fatal for most bands,” Keun Young says. “They can’t practice together for two years and forget everything. Many choose to break up.

“I took my bass back with me after one vacation and hid it in my locker. Every night after finishing in the kitchen, I would take it to the dining room once it was empty. It was a silent, dark place, so I could practice with headphones for 30 minutes.”

Regrouping last summer, the band rehearsed every day for a month before performing a “comeback” concert in Seoul.

“We sounded horrible, but it felt awesome,” says Yong Won. “It was like starting the band again for the first time.”

Although their playing still needed work (Keun Young thinks they still aren’t back to where they were in 2005), they began writing new music for their third full-length, “Old.” Self-produced over two weeks in January, it comes out May 9 on Tokyo record label Toy’s Factory. Gumx will release the album in South Korea on its own imprint, Old Records, at a later date.

Mixed in Seoul and mastered in Japan, the disc’s dozen energetic, melodic cuts are fueled by the band’s time in the army, but don’t directly address the issue of forced enlistment.

“The lyrics on ‘Old’ include the feelings of anger from when we were soldiers, and the anxiety we felt about our future,” says Keun Young. “Not being able to see our families or girlfriends, unable to do anything to develop ourselves for two years, being isolated from society, and feeling like we were falling behind others is what caused our anger.”

They’ll spend two weeks promoting “Old” throughout Japan. Feeling fully revitalized, Gumx welcomes all challenges.

“We’re a punk-rock band and we want a bigger, harder schedule,” says Choi. “This time we are only playing 10 shows in Japan, but next time we want to play more. We want to try to play in the United States this year, too.”

“One good thing came from the military,” says Keun Young. “It gave us stronger minds. When we finished the army, we thought, ‘We can do anything now.’ ”

Gumx’s tour with Tokyo garage-metal band Electric Eel Shock begins May 16 at Look, Chiba and wraps up on May 29 at Shinjuku Loft, Tokyo. For full tour information visit gumx/live.html