Cocore is one of South Korea's first and greatest indie rock bands. In the beginning of their career, they made a name for themselves by covering Nirvana and penning their own grunge anthems. However, over the course of 4 full-length albums, they have proven their artistry and vision time and again as they continue to expand the range of their music. In this interview, perhaps their first to be published in English, the members of Cocore speak candidly about a wide range of topics including what it's like to be an independent musician in Korea, their creative process, and their attitude towards experimental music.
The current lineup of Cocore is as follows:
When and how did Cocore first form?
Myungsoo Hwang: I met Woosung in April of 1995 at a Kurt Cobain tribute concert at Club Drug. Soon after, I began my military service, but a change in my appointment a year later made it possible for me to perform my service outside. So I contacted Woosung to form a band, and we recruited the other members together. I used to play in a band with Jaegwon, our bassist. I called him when I heard he wasn’t in a band at the time. We met our original drummer through a classified ad. One night, we gathered together over drinks and talked about possible band names. “Cocore” popped up and everybody agreed to that name. That was probably in 1996.
I heard that until Kim Dae Joong became president (around 1998 or 1999), amplified public performances were illegal. How did bands exist before this law was repealed?
Myungsoo Hwang: Bands would perform in clubs around Hongdae and Itaewon that didn’t mind breaking the law. Sometimes bands set up shows by collecting money to rent a small theater or live hall and equipment. Those shows almost always resulted in the bands losing money, but all of them were just happy to play.
It seems that with most Korean bands we have met and spoken to, the compulsory military service can be a very disruptive period to a band's life, often-times ending a band completely. How did the military service affect Cocore? How were your experiences personally in the military?
Jiwan Jung: It was difficult, but I got through it by thinking about my band. When I entered the military, I was playing in “Oorineun Sokotdo Saeng-gyutgo Yuhjado Neurutdanae” [roughly translates to “We have underwear and lots of girls”, a.k.a. Sokot band]. Fortunately my bandmates waited the two, three years for me to get out, meanwhile writing new songs in addition to the existing ones. I got out of the military as they were finishing “Sarangae Yooramsun” [“the Love Boat”, Sokot band’s first album], and I’ve been playing since then.
Myungsoo Hwang: The draft system is an outdated institution and a malady of Korean society. Three years out of one’s early 20s, when so many other things could be happening, is too much to give up. Instead, for 3 years you have to live in a closed-off, prison-like community, which changes you dramatically, both mentally and physically. I had many different experiences in the military, most of which were bad and wouldn’t want to go through again. For hot-blooded young men, the military is like opium that makes them lose their ability to make rational judgments. Fortunately for us, Cocore formed after getting its military problems out of the way. If our military issues were unresolved or if those issues never existed, who knows how things might have turned out differently for Cocore.
Woosung Lee: I never chose this country, but this country forced this obligation upon me. The draft was the most painful time of my adult life. You lose your right to live the way you want, and this is a huge pain not only to musicians but to many other young men as well. The government tells people that the draft is a “national obligation”, but I think this is representative of the violence that the government commits upon individuals. People with money and power go around the law if they decide not to serve in the military, or they simply do not go. Therefore, it is a lie that the military service is a holy duty given to all citizens. Some people choose self-injury to receive total or partial exemption.
Do bands in Korea ever tour the country? Are there places to play outside of Seoul?
Jiwan Jung: They are rare, but I’m sure there are many great places to play if we look for them. I hope to play in different places in the future.
Myungsoo Hwang: Many bands tour on a small scale. I think major cities like Kwangju, Taegoo, Pusan, etc. each have one or two live clubs. Taegoo’s “Heavy” is a small but well-known club and many bands play there. Unfortunately, many clubs close down due to financial difficulties. I would say there are less clubs in Korea now than in the ‘90s.
When we met you, you had just come back from a week-long tour in Japan. Where in Japan did you travel to? How did the shows go? How would you compare the Japanese independent rock music scene to the Korean independent rock music scene?
Myungsoo Hwang: We played in cities like Gokura, Fukuoka, and Yamaguchi. The shows were all fun and successful. Above all, we were happy to play with great Japanese bands. We could communicate with them a great deal, and we gained a lot musically.
In Japanese culture it’s normal for musicians to have an occupation while making the type of music they want. As a result, there is more variety in the indie music scene than in Korea. Also, people have fewer prejudices against the musicians.
In contrast, most Koreans are not interested in musicians who do not regularly appear on TV or other mass media. Otherwise, they assume you must have no talent and are wasting your time eating ramen in the back-room of a basement.
Woosung Lee: The Korean indie scene has had a very short history and its existence is always at stake. So it’s difficult to compare it to the Japanese indie scene. Often we feel despair playing shows in Korea, but playing in Japan has been an empowering experience musically and emotionally.
Jiwan Jung: Even though we played mostly small club shows, I felt that the staff, not to mention the bands, were all very professional. I was envious, because to be honest in Korea, many times they are not as concerned with the details.
During the time you wrote Fire, Dance With Me [Cocore's 4th and most recent album, released in 2007], I heard you were without a steady drummer. Many of the tracks consequently have a more electronic or "cut-up" sort of feel to it. What was it like to write and record without a drummer? How did you find your current drummer Jung Jiwan?
Myungsoo Hwang: There are some advantages to recording without a drummer, but I think there are more drawbacks. You almost have to give up on generating a live feel, and this was what I missed the most. However, I think we used our talents to produce a good album. I was very surprised when each member brought his own demos. In a sense, I think we gained a lot by working this way. As long as the feeling of each song is right, it will be a great album regardless of whether the songs were recorded live or cut-up.
I first met our current drummer Jiwan when we played together with the Sokot band. I really liked the feeling in his playing. It wasn’t B.B King’s guitar tone, but I felt every sound he played in my heart. From then on, I told Woosung that I thought he was the best active drummer around Hongdae. Afterwards, when we heard the Sokot band disbanded, Woosung called him to ask him to join our band. He was pleased to accept the invitation, and he is with us to this day.
Jiwan Jung: When I first joined Cocore, we monitored the songs for the album together. The songs were written separately by the individual members, but I sensed something coherent among them. And I was even more excited about playing them live. Having just joined Cocore, the only song we recorded together for the album was “Fire, Dance with Me”. We recorded it live with only two mics, but it turned out to be a lot better than I expected. Thinking about it now, that recording session pointed us to many possible directions. It was a very interesting session, and probably we’ll use both ways of recording on our upcoming album as well.
One of the things I admire most about Cocore is the spirit of experimentation. Can you describe your relationship to experimental music? Who or what inspires you to push the limits?
Woosung Lee: Since the “post-war” era, our generation has experienced nearly all of the history of rock music, its rise and fall. And I think this point applies not only to our band but also to all the bands of our time. I don’t consider anyone’s music to be that experimental if it does not technically embody, organize, or amplify new sounds.
However, to answer the question as a Korean indie band, I think the fact that we exist at all is experimental. Planning and performing shows, writing songs, producing an album, and maintaining relationships among members are all big challenges and experiments for us. That’s because, in almost all instances, nobody we know has gone through these experiences before. For us, there has been no great senior who could teach us how to live wonderfully as a band. Even worse, we don’t have an environment that is worthy of being called a scene, unlike maybe Tokyo or New York City. (smiles)
I think that is the reason we are often called experimental, regardless of our original intention. In Seoul whenever we try something, many times it is the first attempt. Let me give you an interesting example. In New York it might be common to perform after smoking marijuana, but if somebody did that in Seoul how experimental would that be? Most of the audience would probably agree that it is “too experimental”. (smiles) Of course, this is only figuratively speaking.
Jiwan Jung: Personally I don’t think that what I am doing is experimental. I think it only seems experimental because we do not set any limitations on what we will do. It could just be that we are whimsical.
Myungsoo Hwang: Recently I read a story about our band as I was surfing the web. The author was criticizing us for treating our audience like subjects of experimentation at recent performances. However, we only play live to share that ecstasy we feel when we play, and we would never dream about turning our live show into a laboratory. I don’t think of our music as experimental. It seems that people easily conclude that music is experimental or difficult, merely from feeling something different in the music, or from feeling or hearing something for the first time. I think the fact that we included different styles of music in one album also caused people to think of us as experimental. In making music, there continuously arises the desire for new things. If it is the same price, you’d rather drink new, fresh milk that just came in. Likewise, I want to express new influences and fresh feelings and forms in music.
For instance, we might be influenced by elements in 1930s American blues, or a Thai rapper from the 2000s. There is no standardized approach. We make songs from these various kinds of elements and our originality comes naturally because of our individual styles. Also, this may sound cliché, but I think books, music, movies, daily events, and so on- all the phenomena and incidents that I encounter bring me inspiration.
Jaegwon Kim: Genre aside, I’m interested in encountering music that triggers my curiosity to ask why a person made music with these particular lyrics, sounds, and composition. It could be so-called “experimental” music with complicated harmonies and musical structures, or it could be “bbongjjak” the Korean oldies that our fathers sang at drunken parties from our childhood. Depending on the listener, avande-garde jazz could sound like a soft lullaby, or traditional trot [bbongjjak] could be interpreted as esoteric modern poetry. Therefore, I’m not really sure what experimental music is, nor do I know what it means to push the limits, and so on.
I heard that you recently announced a new album which would be one long composition. Can you provide any more details on this work?
Myungsoo Hwang: We are trying to complete our album by visualizing our individual feelings from reading a novel called A Letter from Pluto.
Woosung Lee: A Letter from Pluto is an original sci-fi novel by Myungsoo that depicts adventures in the spiritual world. We will publish it as a package with our record. It could be considered the background music for the novel, or the tracks may be interrelated with the novel. Our goal is to release it early next year, and presently we have finished some of the songwriting.
Jiwan Jung: We are making this record, so that one day people can listen to this while riding together to Pluto. It probably won’t happen, but we’re making it anyway. Spaceship!
Cocore, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us!
photo credit: Sulwoo Kim
VIDEO: Cocore "Nubbooniya"
VIDEO: Cocore "Nubbooniya" (live)