"Be careful. It doesn't smell too good in there," warned Sung Kiwan one hot August afternoon as he unlocked the door to 3rd Line Butterfly's practice studio near Seoul's Seo-Kang Unversity. The musty and damp air of the compact, black-foam padded basement was thick with the scent of mold and mildew, and the ample layer of dust settled atop all of the gear spoke to the space's disuse. How could this be the practice space of one of Seoul's tightest, most accomplished rock bands? "It's only like this during the summer; the rest of the year it's fine," explained Kiwan. "We hate coming here in the summertime, but sometimes we have to once in a while so we don't forget."
Forget? Not likely. This was 3rd Line Butterfly, the band some consider to be Korea's answer to Sonic Youth. Since their inception in 1999, they have kept a highly visible performance schedule and are perhaps the one band that can most reliably rock your world on any given night. While members have come and gone, dual guitar/vocalists Sung Kiwan and Nam Sang-ah have always remained 3BF's core members. Their current line-up is rounded out by Kim Nam-yoon (of Galmaegi/TweedleDumb/"Korean Pavement" fame) on bass, Seo Hyeon-jeong on drums, and "Lego" of France on keyboard, laptop, and theremin. I very much looked forward to hearing Kiwan's story as he is something of a Renaissance man. In addition to playing in this band, he is also a published poet, college professor, soundtrack composer, former indie label honcho, DJ at Gobchang Jungol [best bar in the world!], fluent in English and French, and a father! Without any futher ado…
How did you first get interested in music? Which artists most influenced you growing up? How did you learn to play your instrument? Were you in any bands prior to 3rd Line Butterfly?
Music has always been something I really like. Yeah, I consider myself a music lover, rather than a musician. But when someone deeply adores something or somebody else, he or she begins to want to have it, or at least see the inside. Almost unconsciously, I want it. I want to get in to the music, as an outsider to the music, at some point, I began to try to knock on the door of music, tried to listen to the sound from the inside, and finally opened it. That's when I was almost 30. I am a late comer.
When I was really young, my parents liked to listen to western classical music. Especially the German ones, for example, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Beethoven… So deep inside of me, there is music which have almost no tensioned chords. Pure major, pure minor. Then came the blues. I began to listen to the local rock music almost 'par hasard' [by chance], then British blues oriented hard rock like Cream; they absorbed me. I realized there is an instrument called guitar, the most powerful musical weapon I ever experienced. But the blues is a sad music. That sadness was quite comfortable to me, somehow, because I felt, when I was in middle school, that life is a sad thing. After the blues, when I was like 15, or 16, I happened to see the concert of Kang Tae Hwan, Korean free saxophonist, whom still now I respect very very much. It changed my whole vision of music.
Now I like ordinary sounds as much as music. I can feel musical bounce everywhere.
Prior to 3BF, there were several bands I've been in. The first was, I forget the name, slightly after the high school. And the second was 'Vol de nuit', in Korean 'Yagan Bihaeng'. It was a school band. I was in the department of French literature when I was in university so that's why the band was named after Saint-Exupery's novel. It was just for fun. We applied for a college rock Concour [contest] but we failed. It was 1986.
When was 3rd Line Butterfly formed? I know there are many notable 3rd Line alumni [like solo-artist Whiru], but how did you meet the other members, especially Sang-ah? How did you guys come up with the name?
We used to be colleagues in the indie label called Gangaji Munhwa Yesul ["Dog Culture Art"]. At that time Sang-ah was singing in Huckleberry Finn and I playing guitar in a band called 99. But when Sang-ah left the band, by chance, my band also happened to be broken. So I asked her if she could join me to form a new band. After one week Sang-ah said yes. That was in 1999. But the first time I met her, it was 1996 or 1997. Already 14 years.
Other members were always musicians who were around and 'available'. Sometimes we picked them, and sometimes we just naturally united as members. Some left and some remained, like a small village.
The name, well, I cannot remember exactly but we have an answer for that; we used to live around the Line 3 subway, and the butterfly is a symbol of dreams and fantasy for eastern culture. So the mixture of the ordinary with the surreal that's 3BF.
When the Korean independent music scene started to blossom in the mid/late '90s, what other bands did 3rd Line Butterfly play with? What would you say about the scene at that time compared to the scene today?
The first official rock band for me was TOMATO. In 1993, we were one of the few first Korean alternative rock bands. Actually we used the term 'alternative' for this band. After the democratization of Korea in 1987 and the Olympic Games in 1988, Korean youth culture slowly arose from its past authoritarian culture. 1992-1993 was the beginning of Korean alternative rock history. We released just an album but could not continue.
Then there came the era of "Korean independent explosion". I, with my friends, launched one of the first Korean indie labels (Gangaji Munhwa Yesul) around 1996-1997. But before that I organized arguably the first Korean indie rock festival called Soran with help from Shin Hyunjoon [renowned music critic and founder of Weiv] and friends. Wow. What an exciting and busy era for me. At that time I made a band called '99', with some of the best musicians around. We had 2 albums. That was from 1995-1998. Then 3BF.
Crying Nut and No Brain were at their peak in 1998-1999 in the legendary club Drug. At Drug, there are many good innovative bands of which Yellow Kitchen was also memorable. Choi Su-hwan, now a famous sound artist, was the leader of that band. And from the 'PC communication generation'(early internet era) there were many online clubs for music and from that scene arose Deli Spice, Unni-ei Ibalgwan ("Sister's Barbershop"). And Dalparan was one of the first DJs around that era who was spinning as a self-conscious artist.
Those days were so energetic and real, with almost no precedents. We just burned ourselves for a new musical vision that we thought was necessary for us. We wanted to show something different almost without the delicate skill necessary to achieve it. Nowadays the scene is also energetic, but more sophisticated and with some targeted aims. It works well now, but somehow I miss those early days.
In addition to being a musician, you are also a published poet! Can you tell us about your poetry? How do you approach your poetry and what (if any) relationship does it have with your music? Also, while we're there, what is the process of writing music/lyrics like for 3rd Line Butterfly?
Yes, I am a poet. Poetry is not a job but an attitude. Of course if you are a poet you dream about publishing a poetry book but for me that's not really what a poet is to live for. A real poet is someone who has a sense of how to live a poetic life. It depends on personality and situation also. Sometimes a poet has to fight against the society he is in, but sometimes a poet has to make his mind just to be forgotten from everybody. But for me, my role as a poet is being a poet who deals with words but at the same time who tries to listen to the sound which is accompanied by the flow of time itself. For me poetry is the same thing as sound art. My sound art is making poems.
And also, I think poet is someone who intentionally creates a 'malfunction' of a system. We can call it 'noise'. A poet is a noise maker.
I didn't know it at the time, but I think the first time I heard the music of 3rd Line Butterfly would have been through the drama "Ne Mutdaero Haera" ("Do What You Want") in 2002. It looks like a great deal of music was recorded for that show based on the 2 disc release. How did you guys get hooked up with that drama? Did you guys ever do anything like that again?
We were lucky. In that drama main female character appears as the keyboardist of an indie band. And the vocalist of that band is also female. In fact I know privately the writer of that drama. At that time she was one of my best friends. In the course of pre-production, she asked me frequently about indie band situations. Almost naturally, the imagined band on the drama resembled 3BF. And after that, the PD [program director] of that drama asked us to make some of the music that the 'drama band' would play on screen. There was no time to make new songs so we gave them songs mostly from our first CD and they kind of liked them. That's what it is. After that drama, we became known to the public a little bit, especially for young people. That autumn, 2002, we had so many gigs for college festivals and we earned some money. I remember we rolled around the universities in my bad 5-seat car; but at that time we were squeezing in 6 people so it was illegal.
But after just one season, we received almost no requests for festival gigs, because they realized that our music (apart from the songs in the drama) were so noisy and not good for festival dynamics. And for drama music, I was asked to participate as a personal musician (not with the band), I did it several times, and after that I became involved as a soundtrack composer. Until 2008 I did some good soundtrack score composing.
Do you have other musical projects on the side besides 3rd Line Butterfly currently? For example, I learned about the band 99 from when we did Sohee's interview. Or are there any other notable side bands from the past that you'd like to mention?
Well, I do my solo works along with 3BF. Now, also, I have a plan to make a solo album; more conceptual music filled with more personal expression…and also, I visited Mali, Africa, which is the birth place of the blues, and I recorded 20 gigabytes of ordinary sounds and music, so I plan to make an album called 'Afro-sonique', which will be based on real, unprocessed ordinary sounds.
Can you tell us more about the label Gangaji Munhwa Yesul? How were you involved in it? What bands did this label work with? What was it like working there?
As I mentioned above, it was middle of nineties that Korean first indie explosion came out. Kwon Byungjoon [a.k.a. Gogooma from the band Pippi Longstocking, he now creates experimental music under his proper name] and I were from the same department of our university and were good friends even though I am 4 years older than him. I heard that Byungjoon' s friends and Byunjoon had a project to make an indie label and I joined from the first days of it. I worked very actively in that label. I made a solo album, organized many gigs, had 2 bands, and we helped influence a new generation of music. We had a pretty nice underground home studio near Yangjae station (line 3!), I was practically living there day and night, so many people dropped by. Also, I heard the music of SEAM and it touched me, and I contacted them almost privately. I picked up the e-mail address of Sooyoung Park from Bernie Cho [of MTV Korea], and I e-mailed him to arrange Seam's first visit to Korea to perform. Shin Hyunjoon helped me a lot to make it possible. Seam also visited that studio when they first came to Korea.
I also heard that you are a professor. What do you currently teach? Also, maybe it's just my imagination, but it seems to me like there is some kind of connection between the academic world and the indie rock scene in Korea. That is, a lot of well-known musicians seem to have come from top universities. And for another example, Shin Hyunjoon used to have a club for aspiring music critics at Seoul National University. Is this reflective of interest in indie music as a sort of "rarefied, foreign art", kind of like being into "foreign films" in the U.S.? I don't know- this might be total b.s., but I was wondering if you had any thoughts on this. Particularly if there really is some kind of relationship, I'd like to hear your take on it.
Yeah I am a professor. I teach 'sound design' and 'sound art' in a college. It is not like the music I play with my band, rather it's an avant-garde thing. But I don't know why good university students like Jang Giha, or, well, like me, are interested in indie music in Korea. Maybe in Korea, indie is more of an avant-garde style culture for the few people who can appreciate it, but it isn't very accurate to define it like that either. But one thing is that the universities are still the places in Korea where a lot of new attitudes come out. Why, I really don't know…
What are 3rd Line Butterfly's plans for the future?
We plan to record a new album. I want it so much but I don't know how quickly we can do it… We are so lazy. But I really want to. I have some new songs already but I don't really know if the other members will like them. Nothing's clear. That's us.
Thank you, Kiwan!
Kiwan performing with 3BF 1
VIDEO: 3rd Line Butterfly @ Sangsang Madang 2010.02.28
Kiwan performing with 3BF 2
VIDEO: 3rd Line Butterfly @ Ssam 2010.03.12
Kiwan with fans outside of DGBD 2010.07.23
VIDEO: 3rd Line Butterfly @ DGBD 2010.07.23
Kiwan in elecric ladyland