Sorri: From Zzzaam to Bossa Nova

Interview by Joseph Kim, 3/5/2008
Translated by Sung Shin and Joseph Kim

Choi Sohee first came up in the Hongdae music scene in the late '90s as the bassist for the well-loved indie band Zzzaam (which means "sleep" in Korean). You are highly encouraged to check out Zzzaam's three studio albums. [A couple of Zzzaam's songs are available on K.O.A. Zine's "Korean Underground Rock Mix".] Sohee is now a solo artist who goes by the moniker "Sorri" (which means "to smile" in Portuguese and is pronounced the same as "Sohee"). She writes and performs sophisticated pop songs inspired by bossa nova and is the crush of many a Hongdae indie fan even though she claims that she is "not at all sexy"! Sohee is a pioneer in many senses. She was a member of one of Seoul's first post-punk and post-grunge bands. She was one of the first female musicians to appear on the scene. She also is one of the few musicians who have been on both indie and major labels. We are extremely pleased to have a glimpse at her diverse and unique experience in the Seoul music scene.

When did you first get involved in music? Was the bass your first instrument, or did you have prior musical training?

I loved music from a very young age. Before I entered elementary school, I saw a singer named Kim Wan-sun on TV that I liked so much and I would sing along with her. I found out later, but one of my favorite songs of hers, "Rhythm-sok-eh-geu-choom-eul" ["The Dance In the Rhythm"] was written by ['70s Korean psychedelic rock pioneer] Shin Joong-hyun...

It was during high school that I thought I should realize my music. Actually, realizing "my" music might not be the correct term, since I wanted to be a singer rather than make my own music… Anyhow, for the instrument test in school, thinking that I’d try something a little special, I chose the guitar and took lessons for about a month. After the exam was over, I sold the guitar. Nonetheless, that month of lessons helped me play the bass initially.

Your website says you met the members of your first band Zzzaam at Club Drug in 1997. How did you guys first decide to make music together? What did you sound like? Were audiences receptive to your music when you performed?

My favorite band at Drug was Yellow Kitchen, and I made friends with other fans of that band. We had a common appreciation for a certain Sonic Youth and Velvet Underground kind of music and formed a band in that style. [Zzzaam singer and guitarist] Sung-woo asked me to join the band even though I was still utterly a beginner at the bass. To tell the truth, when we first played shows at Drug, the response was not that great. Back then, punk rock was the main thing at Drug. We played at Drug for about a month, and then we played at Spangle, and it seemed like the crowd at Spangle liked us a lot.

It seems that the style of Zzzaam was in stark, almost radical, contrast to other bands at the time. Whereas many of your peers went for faster and harder music, Zzzaam seemed to intentionally go for slower tempos and laced with subtle noise. I even recall an interview in which it was said that Zzzaam's aim was to put people to sleep. Was your style in reaction to the punk/alternative scene of the time?

It wasn’t really reactionary. We just liked that sound. Some people have described Zzzaam’s music as "Korean". I have some reservations about that description… But I understand what they are trying to say- that Zzzaam did not simply copy dreamy and psychedelic sounds from foreign artists, but was able to do something unique and different with those influences.

Could you tell us a bit about the side-project/band "99" which Sung Kiwan (of 3rd Line Butterfly) formed in 1998? How did that project come about? Did 99 ever perform any shows?

99 played many shows. Sung Kiwan is passionate about groove based music (as am I), and we endeavored to realize that in the album. 99’s first album was done with other friends of his, and the album that I participated in was different from it musically. In our project, we recruited a rapper and the band expressed a hip-hop type of music.

The members of Zzzaam went separate ways in 2004 after the release of your third album Geoul Nori. Can you tell us what your former bandmates are doing these days? Are they still involved in music?

Among my friends that played in Zzzaam (even for a little while), there are people who are still doing music now, who are studying, who are doing fine art, or who are doing photography. Do Jae-myung who played drums with us on the third album is in a band called Loro’s as a keyboardist, vocalist, songwriter, etc. I lost touch with Park Sung-woo.

It seems like the Korean indie music scene is mostly dominated by male musicians (and the same could be said for much any music scene anywhere...) And when a girl is in a band, often times she takes the bass player position. Do you think this comes out of admiring and following musicians such as Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth or Darcy of Smashing Pumpkins (or even yourself in Korea) who set such visible and strong precedents? Or might it be a type of musical sexism of relegating women to supporting, rather than leading positions in bands? (Not to say that there is anything wrong with playing the bass!) But that said, in your experience, what has it been like as a female musician in a mostly male dominated music scene?

[Laughs] While Zzzaam was active, some female students asked me a similar question for their dissertation. I never felt disadvantaged as a woman in the indie scene. In fact, I often thought there were many convenient advantages over men. Guys would say I played "well", even though I could barely play. I was evaluated with a different measure than that used to judge men. I recently came to realize that sexuality played a part in this. (I am not sexy at all.) Receiving that kind of easy criticism can make one complacent as a musician. Women could use a fresh perspective for evaluating their musicianship. Also, I wouldn’t say that all examples of women playing bass are examples of sexism. Women who desire to make music often take up the bass or guitar. However, I suppose it’s worth thinking about why there are more female front vocalists or bassists than lead guitarists.

What was it like making the transition to being a solo artist? When did you pick up your guitar playing skills?

It was fun. Even though playing bass in Zzzaam was a way to be creative, thinking back, what I really wanted to do was sing. It was my desire since adolescence. I hate listening to songs that are too poppy or overplayed, but it is pretty fun to sing and record them.

However, being alone has its share of difficulties. For example, I’d get extremely nervous before going on stage. When I was preparing to go solo, I practiced by singing and playing Brazilian songs on guitar. I just taught myself since there are diagrams and tablatures available for guitar…

It seems that even before you went solo, there were already elements of bossa nova in Zzzaam's music, like the song "Oh, Ibsoolae Lemon". When and how did you first become interested in bossa nova? Who are some of your main influences?

Is "Oh, Ibsoolae Lemon" like bossa nova? I never thought of it that way… [Laughs] Thanks for hearing it that way. While I was in Zzzaam there was a time when I played bass in a Brazilian band. Brazilian music came to me as very new and shocking. Actually, I like dancing very much, (to be honest, in Zzzaam, dancing was seen as embarrassing) and Brazilian music automatically makes me dance. And those melodies… They are not in the least bit easy, yet are so pleasant to my ears… I felt that it was a music with infinite possibilities.

In the beginning I listened to the Gilbertos- Joao Gilberto and Astrud Gilberto, even though they didn’t write many songs... After that, Elis Regina. She didn’t write her songs, but she expressed herself well through her singing. More than anything, I love the songs that she sang. And Marisa Monte and others.

Your solo album was released on CJ Music, a major label in Korea. How did you end up working with them?

CJ Music only did the distribution. The label is a company called YD, which also operates like a major. I signed with them after the CEO showed interested in the demos of my first album. It was a valuable experience for me. And I know better now how I want to proceed in the future. I’m still looking for a major label. In the US there are major scenes and indie scenes, but it also seems there is a scene somewhere in between the two. In Korea, the gap between major and indie is wider. Completely major scenes can sometimes be disgusting, so I want to find my niche. Someplace that’s not disgusting, but where I can still get love...

I think you are probably one of the few artists in Korea who have been on both indie and major labels. How would you compare the two experiences?

The biggest difference is in how much of a say the artist has. Of course, even at an indie label an artist is not completely free… There was a lot to learn from working with a major. I learned from my producer and the label staff that had a wealth of experience and depth in their careers. I learned a lot of things from indie labels, too, but the indie way is a little different. Like that saying about kids- "Let the street raise them."

I still have a long way to go, and there are many things I don’t know. When you start out this way, you might be really innovative, but you might also be immature. I think what was different about working with a major label were all the different factors that stimulated me to grow.

What was it like recording your first solo album? How much creative control did you have over the production?

I would introduce some references to my producer for each song, and I had the freedom to say yes or no to what the producer had worked on. As a solo musician I can’t play all the instruments in a band, so my producer took up that task. There were pros and cons to working this way. Some songs that were all over the place were smoothed out well, but certain things got a little over-produced for my taste. However, the public is used to that level of production, so it’s probably better that I defer on those matters.

There is a video online of you performing the song "Toomyung In-ga" ("Invisible Man") for the TV show EBS Space. It's a beautiful song and I thought the sound of you accompanied by a live band was very enjoyable. Is this representative of how your next album will sound?

That song will be on the next album, but I don’t know if it represents the sound of the album. What I’m thinking these days is, while I like musicians for their songs, it’s their fantastic sound that makes my heart leap. When I compose songs, I think I concentrate too much on the songs themselves, which is understandable, since I write them using only one guitar... On the next album I want to produce a great sound. I can’t say right now if that sound will be live or electronic.

What are you working on currently? Can we expect a new album soon?

I am working on an album. Choosing songs and arranging instruments… I’m trying to release it by this Fall.

Thank you, Sohee!

VIDEO: Sorri: "Gang Gang Swollae" @ EBS Space 2006-12-23

VIDEO: Zzzaam: "Wing R" live 2001

VIDEO: Sorri: live street performance, early 2007 (?)

VIDEO: Sorri: "Toomyung Inga" @ EBS Space 2007-04-22

K.O.A. Zine