The 7th Gwangju Indie Music Festival
By the time I arrive, tie up the bike and say hello to Dan the drummer outside (and thank him for his article on GwangjuBlog alerting me to the rock fest.), a group of four young men are making a fair-sweet racket downstairs. At first look the three mop-top guitarists seem like clones, but the pony-tailed drummer looks so clearly energetic he’s about to jump off his chair and through the roof on the next beat, ending up back outside on the street. Miraculously, for all the jumping around his his drumming is good, his timing is sharp and as he drives his band along fast a girl by the sound desk tells me they are called ‘9 and The Numbers’. On top of the great singing the song changes tempo, letting the guitars’ sound effects stand out. Their next song sees the lead guitarist put down his guitar and focus on the microphone, and make use of the tiny stage to show the audience how to jump around, dance, and really enjoy the music, before grabbing his guitar again to join in for the final song’s instrumental verse finale. A good band with great songs is a fine way to start a Gwangju Indie Music Festival.
I ask around for the name of the next band and a girl says it is ‘Dal Tokki.’ The long list of bands waiting to perform on stage is almost more crowded than the sparse audience in front of it, and is an hour behind schedule as well. The girl near the sound desk says the new set of four young guys setting up are a high school band, and the name means Moon Rabbit.
The Moon Rabbits set up quickly in front of the excitable and equally young audience. The drummer is wearing a cheap nylon jacket with a turned up collar, and as he finishes tightening symbols, shifting drums and setting his seat he leans back confidently into his jacket collar and thumps his sticks down a few times, hard. This brings squeals and a burst of applause before the band even really starts. Happy with the response of the drums and the Girls Up Front (GUF) he whacks his sticks together and counts straight into his band’s first song for the night.
The lead singer in this group is confident, capable, and sings out clearly, but the bass player is the lead character on stage. He is a natural front-man, talking to the audience between songs, shaggy-haired smiles and his large leaps off the fold-back speakers beside the drums. The bands’ music oozes the same personality, all confidence and energy, and are perfect rock numbers: simple, sweet, fast, and fun. With their uniform floppy hairdos and obvious love of the loud sound they get me thinking of a strangely displaced and very early Beatles.
Following on from them, Honey Bread, in comparison, merely look out of place. The three men who take the stage and set up their gear are probably in their late thirties and seem very professional and business-like, but if the Moon Rabbits are a high school band, Honey Bread’s lead singer is a middle school girl with the school uniform’s hat and the nervousness and inexperience to go with it. She looks like she took a wrong turn with a microphone from a noraebang to find herself lost on stage and abandoned by her friends. Unfortunately, she sounds like it too. Her vocals are sweet, but the songs are set too high for her to really sing out, and, worse yet, she sings to the microphone, instead of through the mic. and to the audience, and so her sound is lost in the mix of the good band around her. The guy at the sound desk tries to turn her microphone up full but ends up with a feed-back screetch, and so her sweet soft vocals are left swamped somewhere below layers of guitars and drums.
The band reminds me a bit of Garbage; clearly, the musician members here are the creative force who write and direct their very good songs, and they have found a fragile new female talent to be their singer. They use samples really well, and the guitar has a beautiful clean jangly sound, and the drummer reverses the beat in the bridge of their second song, and they all groove enthusiastically on stage to their final rock out number; but after the second song the girl leaves her microphone switched on while the audience watches her open a bottle of water and take a drink, listening to the sound effects within the patient silence. After the next song her band members again leave her alone standing looking out at the audience without a clue as to what to say, while they tune up and prepare for their frenetic finale.
Hopefully, after tonight, she throws away her hat and her inhibitions, and tells the boys behind her to change key down a few. (I want to tell her how Bono from the band ‘U2’ famously used to sing too high, and when he changed to a more natural register they went on to become ‘the greatest rock band in the world’.) Honey Bread has the potential to deliver tastier performances in the future. I look forward to a sampling.
As Honey Bread leaves the stage, four more guys stroll on, including two in cheap trucker’s caps, one with glasses larger than his head and front teeth even bigger than that. Another one is in long baggy skater’s pants and even longer hair, and the last lanky lad has a mop of naturally shaggy red hair: Dan the drummer is on with Betty Ass again! It takes them moments to start their first song of pure pop-punk power amidst guttural grunts and half-strangled screams. Dan’s rapid fire drumming punches through the discordant distorted guitars to pull the sound together, and then suddenly their first song is over within the two minutes of magic mayhem. It’s a torrential down-pour of sound wiping the stage clean for their refreshing take on punk music. This includes their third song with the change in singer and slower tempo. This leaves them ready to speed up again for their finale favourite, ‘Country Roads’ played at a hyper-surreal speed. They don’t slow down for the clap-along chorus and they don’t slow down for the toothy guitarist who loses his cap from jumping around too much in front of the drums. Betty Ass are a simple, refreshing blast of raw energy and fun.
The next band to take the stage, strangely, seems to have only two members. A tall, skinny guitarist with a pseudo-Afro super-perm warms up: he spins jagged blues riffs off his unusual white Fender Stratocaster while the drummer takes his time setting up his kit. They make an unusual couple, with the baby-faced guitarist looking like he’s stepped out of his middle-school uniform and into Jimmy Page’s practice session and also his clothes from the 1970s, including dangerously tight stove-pipe jeans and a black leather jacket so small it makes me wonder how he can breathe. The drummer, in contrast, looks like some random nice guy who just walked in off the street, except he takes so long setting up, and has such confidence in doing so, that the young audience’s level of interest grows with the longer he takes. Eventually the guitarist’s riffs grow longer and more fluid, slipping, sliding, and stabbing out from the speakers. Suddenly, somehow, they are both actually playing a song together and it is the most basic and powerful musical relationship yet seen on stage.
Having only two performers usually leaves more empty space to fill and so more room for obvious error, but the drummer is so tight and precise that the guitar either drapes over the rigid tempo or bounces straight off it, interweaving with his own vocals. It’s a pure rock sound pulled straight from the blues and so almost similar to The White Stripes but with a harder, faster kick in the pants from the drums.
Before their second song starts one of the biggest guys in the room yet wearing a tiny black pork-pie hat steps up onto the stage and picks up a bass guitar. Dressed completely in a no-nonsense black dinner jacket over a black T-shirt and pants, he has a stern look of serious concentration as he starts thumping out blues progressions while in rigid lock-step tempo with the drummer. It’s easy to play blues, but it’s an art to play blues well, and for a group to be this tight together is dazzling, even for the kids up front who may have never even heard the sound before.
By the third song the guitarist has pulled out a harmonica and starts the group off with some strained wailing so piercingly sharp it sounds like it’s coming from another planet. All three members sing together and they have that polished tightness that only comes with practise and live experience. I am not sure if many in the audience recognize the sound, but it is so infectiously powerful the GUF are squeaking, grooving and bouncing along until the fourth track, which starts with the drummer playing a relentless ‘tattoo’ or very plain, very fast, fairly flat rhythm with the other two singing sparingly over the top to some uneven timing.
Suddenly, it’s like I don’t even know if I recognize the style anymore myself, but it’s very fast, simple, and so powerful it pulls everyone along for the ride at break-neck speed. No-one is quite sure how to move to it so we just stand around mesmerized, transfixed. The end is like a release which melds into their ‘last song’ and a return to a simple new hard, driving blues number. When the piece suddenly crashes to an end the GUF are so hyped and everyone is so loud with applause that the band seems to steal precious extra minutes for another finale and an even simpler, extra-catchy blues-riff driven piece.
Then, they really are finished and are striding on out through the crowd towards the exit. I follow them upstairs where I learn the band’s name is ‘Army.’ they play regularly in bars around Hongik University in the north west of Seoul, and the bass player does seem to have that stern look of seriousness all the time.
When I arrive back downstairs four young Korean guys are doing a nicely polished rap act. They’re jumping around on stage, each with a microphone, and some with more to say than others. A couple of them rap long verses so rapidly I am quite amazed to hear anybody can speak that quickly let alone keep in time with the backing music. It is not my favourite style but I get caught up with the energy, and it is impressive and fun. The GUF are really enjoying it and jumping along in time with the boys’ antics floating and bopping on stage. Fortunately, poses and signs are a minimum and no-one overdoes the wannabe gangsta thing.
By this time my friend Dan has arrived; not Dan the drummer but Dan the shoe-gazer fan. Having sat at the back for the rap act, he leads the charge to the stage in preparation for ‘Pigeon Milk’ (‘Vidulgi OoyoO’) who he has heard before and describes as “a very good ‘shoe-gaze’ band.” I follow him forwards and we all wait patiently along with the drummer and bass player as the two guitarists take another Very Long Time to get Exactly The Right Sounds from their guitars and their large collections of effects pedals lying in rows across the floor. They squat over their expensive equipment, ignoring the rest of the world, and, slowly, gradually, increasingly interesting sounds peel out of their large amplifier speakers.
Finally, they are ready to start and so stand up straight again. The woman with the beautiful Fender Jaguar guitar makes it ring, and a sound like fairies singing delicately in an echoing cave reverberates around the large room. Suddenly the whole band joins in and it sounds more like the cave is collapsing around the poor fairies, and yet the eerie sense of wonder remains. It is not so much a song as it is a piece of music, and it does not finish as much as fade away somewhere, but before I wonder if we are supposed to clap, they are playing another piece, and I realise that this music is not about energy and excitement as the other bands play, but rather it is a hypnotic interweaving of intriguing sounds. Both guitarists sing and like the singer from Honey Bread their vocals are buried beneath the band, but this time it actually adds to the texture. They are not trying to be singers; they are sound-smiths, or aural artists, or, as Dan the Shoe-gazer says, they are ‘sonic architects’.
One of my favourite sights from the evening is of the female guitarist pounding out a simple D-chord while the male guitarist throttles over-driven sounds from his. He is crouching over his effects peddles and twisting knobs with his other hand. Whatever they are doing, it does sound beautiful.
After their glorious set Dan and I decide we need some food so head upstairs for the nearest convenience store, but happily find the members of both Vidulgi OoyoO and Army hanging around chatting on the road outside. We buy CD copies of EPs, get them signed and try badly to ask stupid questions that are not too obviously from awe-struck fans. I find out the young-looking guitarist from Army grew up in the Netherlands but came back to Korea ten years ago. He still speaks good English and translates as I share the questions around the other two members, although the drummer understands English pretty well. The bass player continues to look like everything is awfully serious. I try to make a joke about the guitarist’s shoes being worn ever since he left the Netherlands because he noticed them falling apart in the middle of the song while he was playing harmonica, and he laughs a bit too much. I realise he really is very young, but I don’t ask their ages. Then they have to leave for the drive back to Seoul.
By the time Dan and I get back inside we have completely missed ‘G-grand’ but arrive in time to say hello to Steve, and catch the start of ‘Yellow Monsters.’ This is a hard rock three piece of guys in their thirties with both musical experience and personal confidence to burn, and they light up the stage from the minute they’re on board. The guitarist is the front guy and he demands attention immediately, demanding repeatedly and excitedly: “Are you ready?! … Are YOU ready?! … Are you READY?!” before launching into a perfect set of power-chord rock and searing lead guitar attacks. The bass player is tall and has long hair drooping around his lively smiley face, and the drummer also sings loudly, and hits his drums even louder. This noisy three-piece is so clearly audible it verges on an aural bludgeoning. They finish off with a cover of ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ that has most of the crowd jumping along in time, and even Dan the Shoe-gazer is nodding his head on the beat and smiling with that glazed happy-high grin that good music makes.
It’s hard to imagine what could top these last few performances in any way, but the GUF seem to have heightened expectations, and as the Yellow Monsters leave from one side of the stage and another group of four men haul their gear on and set up, another burst of squealing erupts. The new arrivals have stylish, matching white bus-boy type jackets and black trousers. The three guitarists are young and clean-cut, the drummer looks in his late forties and wears a black beret perched on the side of his head, and the main singer claiming the middle of the stage looks obnoxiously handsome. It’s a band called ‘The Moonshiners,’ and they are obviously already well established within the nation’s indie music scene. Dan makes a quip about the drummer being their high-school music teacher, but it is hard to joke when the band starts up as all four are confident, energetic, and have a smooth coordination. Their music is early rock and roll with a sharp modern edge to it, somehow blending elements of style from swamp rock through to grunge. The straight backbone though is provided by the drummer’s clean, proficient technique and precision timing, allowing the three boys up front to ring out clearly in their separate roles.
The main guitarist out on the left gets to show off his lead skills in the second song, drawing attention away from his two-tone shoes and black and orange striped socks, up to his smooth Fender Jazzmaster guitar. Then the third song sees the experienced drummer on the other side of the stage hammering out a heavy Bo Diddly rhythm that has been a sure-fire way of driving teens wild for decades now, and it still has the power. Their next number is 50s-era hectic rock’n’roll shock, with the whole band singing along on the call and answer chorus ‘Everything’s All Right!’ By the fifth song the raunchy blues has the boys at the front of the stage so worked up that the lead singer accidentally knocks his own microphone out of its stand while swinging his guitar around. He recovers well, shaking his backside at the GUF in tempo while he gets his microphone under control, then drops straight back into his vocals at the start of the next line. Meantime the others continue playing cool and dropping in the BVs: “Wop, bop, woah, yeah!” Their following number is a more modern style, loose and grungy, with the lead singer sans guitar pogo leaping around his small patch of stage. It sets up well for the next song with its sharper guitar sounds and more 60s feel. The loud and enthusiastic demand for the ‘N-core’ (encore) sees him pick up his silver Stratocaster again for the fuller rock sound finale.
The group moves quickly to the tiny room off stage, but few of the hyped up crowd leave as the lights turn on, instead waiting for the band to finally make a dash through the middle of the audience floor for the exit door on the other side. I happily take the chance to give a half bow and thank the drummer for his great work as he passes by, and then Dan and I follow The Moonshiners out into the chilly autumnal Gwangju night air, leaving the band to the happy young fans.
Dan and I debriefed over late-night meals of mandu and and bibimbap, reflecting on the wonderfully cheap price of entry at the door. We agreed that we would have happily paid that price or more to see only one or two of the bands. That we could enjoy hearing so many great groups in person for such a low price seems fantastic. I look forward to seeing any of these acts play a longer set sometime soon. Finally, I give thanks that the organizers of the Gwangju Indie Music Festival and the Nevermind live music café are still putting on a great, great show.
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Betty Ass are having their album release ‘showcase’ concert
at Nevermind on Saturday the 13th of November:
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‘The Social Discourse of Disquiet’.