Jowall: Balance and Imbalance

Interview by Joseph Kim, 5/17/2009
Translated by Joseph Kim

Jowall is the solo moniker of musician/artist Young Sang Cho. As a big fan of the now-defunct Sokot band, for which he played guitar, when I was told he had just released an excellent solo album, I had to track it down. The album, titled "Things You Are Going to See Here," did not disappoint. The music has a quiet intensity to it well-suited to late nights of contemplation and writing. It seems to effortlessly combine digital and "real" sounds in ways that sound completely natural and organic. And sometimes, it pares everything away but the sound of a quietly strummed acoustic guitar and voice, while still managing to sound otherworldly. It's rather hard to believe that everything was recorded in a cramped NYC apartment, but when I found out Young was currently living and working in NY, I had to jump at the chance to learn more about his music. In this interview, he gives us insight into his working methods, as well as his past in two other seminal bands- the aforementioned Sokot band and his brother's band Byul. I'm also happy to report that since we've had this interview, the album was picked up for a full-scale release in Korea by Pastel Music!

How did you first get into music? What were your early musical influences?

In my elementary school classroom, there was an organ that I composed strange songs on, and sometimes I even performed them with my friends. But I didn't start in earnest until middle school when there was a boom in dance music in Korea, and I thought I would try to do something similar. A few of my friends and I wrote songs on a toy keyboard, messed around with lyrics, and practiced beat-boxing... I think that's how I started.

I got into listening to music thanks to my older brother who listened to many different things. Neither of us were hardcore rock kids, but we really liked the Cure, Depeche Mode, Petshop Boys, New Order, and mainstream pop. I never fell too deeply into finding music to listen to; rather my brother and I preferred to write our own music to listen to. That inclination hasn't really changed to this day.

Was the Sokot band your first band, or were there other groups before?

If we're only talking about since high school- before Sokot band, my brother, some friends, and I had already started the band Byul. I was also in a band called Jin-gong Akdan (“Vacuum Orchestra”). Jin-gong Akdan recorded a demo, but broke up before we could even play a single show.

Byul is not so much a band as it is my brother's solo project with loose members that come and go. Byul also occasionally puts out a magazine/recording called “Wulgan Vampire” (“Monthly Vampire”). This year, we plan to put out issue No. 7 titled “We Bats”.

What is your role in Byul? What is the magazine about- music, art, literature? Is the "Monthly Vampire" magazine promoted as a product made by Byul?

“Monthly Vampire” is, as its name suggests, released in the form of a magazine. We're still trying to live up to the “Monthly” part of the name. The magazine has no fixed theme, and probably never will. There have been times when the magazine was filled with members' trivial writings or just photos. Not too long ago, we started accepting other contributors' words/photos through our home page. The theme and meaning change little by little each time we publish, and going forward, I expect it can't help but continue to change, since it's the type of magazine where we write whatever we want or are able to. (smiles)

To be honest, I don't contribute that much to the magazine part, but I do serve as Byul's guitarist and midi-programmer. While I rely on others to work on the magazine, I work with my brother on the lyric writing, composition, and production of the music. My brother is the best melody maker and lyricist that I know. We know each others strengths and weaknesses so it's comfortable and enjoyable working with him. Although I could go on longer about Byul, as a member, this is about all that I know about it. (smiles)

How did the Sokot band form? How did the members all meet?

I grew up with Hyunmin Park and Seungho Chung in the same neighborhood and school, but we weren't particularly close. After we got into college, the two of them formed a band called “Darakbang” ("Attic") and started performing at Club Bbang, which in those days was located behind E-dae (Ehwa University). As for me, by that time, I had started Jin-gong Akdan and Byul.

The situation was that we were just waiting for our military entrance dates when some friends called me to go out drinking. We decided that we should form a band before going to the military that would make music without regard for what others wanted and just make the music we wanted to make. This project was to be casual and our object was to be comfortable and enjoy ourselves.

We lured our drummer Jiwan Jung [now with Cocore] from another Bbang band called “Everloose” and began light-heartedly. Our bassist Yoon-young Jang replaced our original bassist Seung-ho Jung who had entered the military, and we met her through a help-wanted ad on the internet. Anyhow, it started with a night of drinking. If I look back on it now, the project was neither very casual, nor was it comfortable. (laughs)

How did you guys get your very epic name, Oorineun Sokotdo Saenggyutgo Yujado Neurutdanae ("We have underwear and girls, too")?

My memory is not too clear on this, but one thing is for sure, all the members were very drunk at the time. We've reminisced about this event several times, but each member seems to have a slightly different recollection. So the only definite thing is that we were all very drunk at the time. Also, there is no special meaning to the name.

Actually, when the band was coming out of its sporadic phase and started to get going, I wasn't too keen on the name and proposed changing it on a few occasions.

Nowadays, I am grateful to my band members who refused my requests without remorse. Even though it's a truly ridiculous name, it seems to have strongly influenced the character of the band, and in many ways, we were more interesting because of it. I think the name suited us in many ways.

What were your early performances like? Was the audience receptive to your music? And when did you guys develop your style of performing with your back to the audience?

If you exclude the very earliest days, there wasn't much difference in our performance style from beginning to end. The band was together for 6 years, so the repertory grew, but we always continued to play our earliest songs. Beginning or end, the disposition and sound of the songs didn't change that much, although we may have gotten more into the swing of things and found more stability.

To our delight, in the last days of Sokot band, our audience rapidly blew up. Before that, we had gotten used to performing for much smaller audiences, so that was pretty nice. I thought maybe more people were coming to the shows because they had heard we were splitting up soon. We were never a huge band, or a band that everyone paid attention to, so when our audience grew, we were more excited to perform and had more fun. I don't know, but this might be the reason that some bands decide to get back together. (laughs)

I was going to say, “Many people hated the fact that we performed with our backs to the audience.” However, thinking about it carefully, I don't recall having experienced any negative reactions. If we ever got flack for it, it was from the other bands we played with, or from the friends we went drinking with later. Probably the person who hated our performance style the most was our drummer Jiwan. (laughs) I think each member had their own reasons for playing with their backs to the audience, but I'm pretty sure nobody did it because they thought it was cool. (laughs) As for me, I saw my bandmates doing it, and standing on stage was a strain, so that's how I found myself doing the same.

When did you start working on your solo project, Jowall?

The conception of the album began during the Sokot band days and I had worked on it steadily since then. Although a couple of the songs were written back then, I didn't really find my direction and start recording until 2 years ago. Progress was rather on the slow side.

Was everything recorded while you were in New York? You had mentioned that you had been recording in your apartment. Can you describe what that was like? Did this influence the sound of the record?

Yes, I recorded everything in the room that I live in now. It was convenient having the equipment and working there. I'd build the song with guitar or computer- record, erase, record, switch something around... I like to write and record at the same time. Many of the guide-tracks I recorded ended up in the final songs. Other tracks were recorded and then in the process of playing around were completely rearranged. This style of working was comfortable and suited me well.

When I first started working on my solo album, I thought the sound would be rough and simple like a live recording, but being caught in the storm of living and working in a foreign country brought me down to earth and I realized things would be much more difficult. My room is cramped and has no soundproofing so I couldn't mic up my guitar amp. I had a very hard time getting an electric guitar tone that I liked. I think that's why I used a lot of acoustic guitar sounds on the album.

You had mentioned to me before that the drums were done electronically, which I found so surprising because they sound very real and have a very live feel. Overall, I feel that the sound of your album integrates organic and digital sounds so naturally that it's virtually seamless. Is there a certain sound or aesthetic that you were aiming for with this album?

First of all, thank you. (smiles)

Like I said before, I wanted to record live sounds, especially the drums, but for various reasons that didn't work out. I've been programming drums for such a long time that I'm confident about it, but lately, I wasn't really feeling those sounds- of course, I had no choice this time.

Looking back on it, most of my time was spent on drum programming. Except for the song “Fireworks”, I wanted the drum sound to be ambiguous or confusing so that you can't tell if it's midi, or samples, or real drums. I think this approach had a large influence on the overall feel of the album.

If I had to make a firm representation about the sound of the album, I would say that I wanted to make a recording that curiously intertwines and entangles the feelings of balance and imbalance. The theme of balance/imbalance can be found in the lyrics, melodies, live/digital sounds, and rhythms as well.

Like a person who looks very normal at first glance, but is dangerously close to exploding in an instant. Or like a frightening or grotesque drawing- the more you look at it, it doesn't look frightening as much as it looks more and more desolate. This is the type of feeling I wanted to create.

I aspired to create music which could not easily be assigned to some genre, or that someone would not be able to say “it sounds like so and so”. I think I've satisfied myself that I've achieved this. Going forward, I think this is a goal which I want to keep aiming for.

More generally, what would you say your album "Things You Are Going to See Here" is about?

I think this is an album that I wrote for myself in a simple way about the things and feelings I went though at that time. In one sense, the songs are like letters being sent out to someone, and in another, they are like songs written to console oneself. Anyway, all of the songs have each of these elements to some extent, but ultimately, all of them could be considered love songs.

A friend of mine mentioned that he had heard your album before it was released because you had posted it on a Korean music message board. Apparently, the reaction the music received from these early audiences was very positive! What were your thoughts when deciding to share your unfinished album?

At first I didn't know if I would release a CD or not. The process of releasing a CD seemed bothersome, and I was wondering whether there was any point to putting one out. For the time being, I thought it would be good if a few people could listen to the music and I started to make the album available for streaming. I thought it was a good move, and I would like to do the same in the future.

I posted the streaming address to my homepage and the Byul homepage only, but I didn't expect that people would be reposting my link to other message boards. In this way, my music ended up being heard by many more people than I expected. If it's a CD or MP3, obviously the recording should be purchased, but with a streaming service the musician has an opportunity to promote the music in a way that benefits both the musician and the consuming public.

Let's wrap up with a more light hearted question, so... Last question, when is Sokot band going to have it's reunion tour?

Actually, this is not a light question at all. To me, the question is like "When are you going to meet your ex-girlfriend again?" Who knows? I may come across her this afternoon, or maybe it will never happen. (laughs)

Thank you, Young!

Listen to Jowall's album online at:

VIDEO: Sokot band 2005

VIDEO: Sokot band & Byul 2006.04.29

VIDEO: Byul: "Bidan-gil" 2001

Sokot band:

K.O.A. Zine