Indie breakout, 'kimchibilly' rockers bring Seoul to Japan

Can Chang Kiha or The RockTigers win fans on the back of the Korea boom?

by Shawn Despres

While K-pop continues to gain greater recognition worldwide, South Korea’s prolific, small underground-music scene is still struggling to find audiences outside of Seoul.

Folk-rock group Chang Kiha and the Faces have, until now, brushed off the so-called Korea boom and focused primarily on their domestic market.

“The Korean lyrics are very important in our music,” says vocalist and band leader Chang Kiha. “One of my main goals is to make our lyrics as Korean as possible. Our priority is to do well in Korea.”

Chang began his career in 2002 as the drummer for Seoul modern rockers Nunco Band. He started writing his own songs while completing his mandatory military service between 2005 and 2007.

“As tracks accumulated, I thought that I couldn’t play them with Nunco Band because we already had a songwriter in the group,” Chang says. “Also, I thought that I’d be better at singing my own material than another person would be.”

In 2008, Chang released a three-song CD single called “Ssaguryo Kopi” (translated as “Cheap Coffee”) through Seoul indie label Boonga Boonga Records. Inspired by 1960s and ’70s Korean folk rock, his quirky, deadpan delivery and playful observations about life quickly attracted accolades from the local music industry netting him three Korean Music Awards for the single.

Originally a solo artist, he turned the project into a proper band, Chang Kiha and the Faces, for the 2009 full-length, “Byullil Opshi Sanda” (translated as “Living the Nothing Special Life”). Selling 40,000 copies to date, the disc has nearly made Chang into a household name.

“My case is very rare in Korea,” Chang admits. “Many people have asked me about why I have been so successful. All I can say is ‘I don’t know.’ That’s for other people to analyze.

“I like my own music and I figured that some others would also enjoy it. I had no idea how many people would like it, but I knew that at least a few would.”

P-Vine Records released “Byullil Opshi Sanda” in Japan on Nov. 3. The band’s contract with the label was unexpected by Chang.

“P-Vine was considering licensing Shugo Tokumaru’s latest album in Korea and were looking at a few different record companies,” he says. “P-Vine chose to go with Boonga Boonga, the same label I am signed to. Then they suggested putting out my album in Japan. I hadn’t considered going abroad before P-Vine suggested working together.”

Chang Kiha and the Faces have two Tokyo shows this month to promote “Byullil Opshi Sanda.” One of the gigs is opening for Tokumaru. In turn, Tokumaru will support Chang Kiha and the Faces during a pair of Christmas concerts in Seoul.

Chang traveled to Japan in August to do some early press for “Byullil Opshi Sanda.” Witnessing the talent level in Tokyo provided him with extra motivation to get his group into tip-top musical shape.

“We have been exercising and are practicing really hard for this tour,” Chang says. “When I went to Japan I saw a few live performances and all the Japanese bands played really well.

“We will start recording our second album in December. These concerts will be a good way to end the first album. Also, the extra practice will make us better prepared to enter the studio.”

Aware that his lyrics will be lost on many Japanese gig-goers, Chang is thinking of ways to keep everyone involved.

“I’m studying Japanese now so that I can speak as much Japanese as possible between songs. We may make some picket signs with translations for some of the key words from songs, but haven’t decided yet.”

Fellow Seoulites The RockTigers are also performing in Japan around the same time as Chang Kiha and the Faces.

“The RockTigers have been playing together for a long time,” says Chang. “They have stayed true to their original ideals and I really respect that.”

The admiration goes both ways according to RockTigers guitarist Tiger: “Chang Kiha is our friend and we drink together sometimes. It’s hard to find time to meet him because he is so busy now.”

Operating only under their adopted stage names, other members of The RockTigers include singer Velvet Geena, guitarist Eddie Tarantula, upright bassist Roy, and drummer Jack “The Knife.”

Formed in 2001, the quintet abandoned their Guitar Wolf loving, hard rock ways after a 2004 appearance at Tokyo Big Rumble, Japan’s largest annual festival for rockabilly and psychobilly (rockabilly’s punked-up cousin), and became South Korea’s first rockabilly band.

“We are the pioneers of rockabilly in Korea,” says Geena proudly.

With no one to learn from in their homeland, the group went online to educate themselves about the style’s history.

“The Internet made The RockTigers,” says Tiger. “We buy all of our clothing from the Internet and promote the group mainly online.

“Also, Roy learned how to play slap bass from YouTube. No one else was playing slap bass in Korea before.”

With the band playing upbeat classic rock tinged with blues and country licks, a friend dubbed their sound “kimchibilly” in 2008. They loved the tag and have used it to describe themselves ever since. For nearly two years the name has also served as the title of their monthly concert series, Kimchibilly Night, which showcases rockabilly from Korea and Japan.

This past January, the vocalist for psychobilly act Battle of Ninjamanz and organizer of Tokyo Big Rumble, Mutsumi Kubouchi, helped The RockTigers issue their third album proper, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Licence,” in Japan. Looking to differentiate the Japanese and Korean editions of the disc, he designed new artwork — without the group’s approval.

“When we first saw it we thought it was terrible,” says Tiger. “After we looked at it a few times, we thought it was not that bad, but far from fantastic.

“We didn’t know Mutsumi was going to do that,” laughs Geena “He’s crazy. He made it by himself without telling us. We saw it online after it was already out. It’s cool, though. He’s a punk rocker so I can understand why he did it.”

“Rock ‘n’ Roll Licence” took more than a year to make. Enlisting a producer for the first time, The RockTigers re-evaluated their songwriting process in hopes of developing a more authentic brand of rockabilly.

“The producer felt that our last album (2007’s ‘Oldies but Goodies’) was more punk than rockabilly,” says Geena. “He pointed out our bad habits, which we didn’t like hearing so there were some arguments early on. We became more open to his suggestions, though, and together studied rockabilly.”

Impressed by what she had heard about the band, seasoned Japanese rockabilly vocalist Conny (formerly of The Venus) e-mailed The RockTigers a few months ago to ask about Kimchibilly Night.

“I was really surprised because I am a big fan of hers,” says Geena. “She visited Korea with her husband in the summer for sightseeing and to see us play.”

After watching The RockTigers, Conny suggested they make an EP in Japanese for her Conny Records label. Out on Nov. 18, “Rockabilly Coaster” features reworked tracks from “Rock ‘n’ Roll Licence” alongside Japanese and Korean covers of The Venus’ “Kiss wa Me ni Shite.”

“Geena speaks Japanese and Conny helped her create Japanese lyrics for some of our songs,” says Tiger. “Geena and Conny dueted on a Korean version of The Venus’ song that we are including as a bonus track.”

Conny with Yoshi & Dynners will appear with The RockTigers during their Japan dates. She and The RockTigers are also planning to team up for an American jaunt next July.

The artwork for “Rockabilly Coaster” has individual pictures of all The RockTigers with the photo of the pretty Geena being noticeably bigger than the rest.

The group’s lone Japanese speaker, does Geena plan to pad her frontwoman status by making them “Velvet Geena and the RockTigers,” during their upcoming tour?

“Maybe I will,” she jokes.

“It’s more like Geena and her dogs,” chuckles Tiger. “What can we say, everyone wants Geena.”

Chang Kiha and the Faces perform in Tokyo on Nov. 22 at Lush (7 p.m.; ¥3,300 in advance; [03] 5467-3073) and on Nov. 23 at WWW (7 p.m.; ¥3,800 in advance; [03] 5458-7676). For details, visit The RockTigers play on Nov. 20 in Osaka at King Cobra (6:30 p.m.; [06] 6211-2875); on Nov. 21 in Nagoya at JB Studio (6:30 p.m.; [052] 693-1966); on Nov. 22 in Fukushima at Milgram (7 p.m.; [024] 521-8220); on Nov. 23 in Tokyo at Club Glad (6:30 p.m.; [03] 5458-2551). All shows ¥3,500 in advance. For more information, visit