(From left) U-su, Hwang So-yoon and Park Hyun-jin of band Se So Neon. (Magic Strawberry Sound)
The title of indie rock band Se So Neon’s new single had to be “Jayu” instead of the English translation “freedom,” the band’s vocalist Hwang So-yoon said. The two-syllabled Korean word much better encapsulated the sense of freedom they wanted to sing through their music, Hwang told the Korea Herald during an interview conducted Tuesday.
“It’s not the feeling of liberation felt by someone shouting ‘I’m finally free!’ in an open space, but a realization of freeness felt sitting inside one’s small room, watching people pass by through the window and contemplating about the bigger world,” said Hwang, who is also the producer and lyricist of the song.
Drummer U-su and bassist Park Hyun-jin of the band also joined the interview held ahead of the album’s release on Friday.
“I think we’ve already achieved our personal goals with the song,” U-su said, as Park nodded in agreement.
“I was unsure with the song and my emotions about it at first, but working on it with the members and other staffers, I think we all enjoyed the whole process of lingering on the idea of ‘freeness’ and finding a way to express it,” Hwang said.
The new single makes up the latest piece of the band’s story that kicked off in 2017 with their first EP “Summer Plumage,” followed by the second EP “Nonadaptation” in 2020.
The story represents a coherent flow of emotions felt by youths as they try to navigate life. While “Summer Plumage” sings of the vibrant energy experienced at the start of a voyage in life, “Nonadaptation” plunges into the feeling of confusion and fear. After a year-long period of wandering, they’ve finally set their foot onto a path to freedom in “Jayu.”
“The previous album dealt of the unstable energies experienced by someone feeling alienated from the society, often at a disagreeable and unadaptable place. The next step was to accept the fact that the world is an unreasonable place and all we can do is find our own liberty in it, making small changes at a time. So ‘Jayu’ doesn’t exactly sing of freedom itself but facing our own fears and taking the steps towards it,” Hwang explained.
Cover image of Se So Neon`s "Jayu" (Magic Strawberry Sound)
The name Se So Neon, which can be literally translated to “new kids” or “new boys,” was coined by Hwang, who first founded the band in 2016. The band made its debut in June 2017 with the single “A Long Dream.”
“I discovered the word from a magazine in an independent book store. I liked its vintage font, and later found out that it was the name of a now ceased children’s magazine. The name gave off an ambiguous impression. It felt gender-neutral, and gave off a freshness that wasn’t excessive,” Hwang said.
Hwang felt the image the band’s name portrays is important and considers the band’s activities a form of storytelling in itself.
“It inevitably comes in line with our personal lives. The songs are like stamp marks we leave. We take every step very cautiously in making the songs, so the thoughts going through our mind at the stage is important,” Hwang said.
The songs are also a reflection of the path the three bandmates have embarked on since their debut in June 2017 with the single “A Long Dream.”
The trio recalled having to experience through struggles to adapt as a group before finally coming to understand each other -- a liberation at last. Coming together in April 2019, a process of adjustments was inevitable, especially as Hwang produced and penned most songs.
“The new single holds a significant meaning for our band as well. While the previous albums had mostly told stories of my own, I wanted to make each of the members stand out equally with this new song. But this isn’t something we can just make up. It comes naturally with time and with the maturation of our synergy. Although I didn’t want to take things hastily, I’ve been consciously trying to make choices that could provide more chances for the three of us to stand equally on the stage.”
A band not so special, yet special
Debuting in June 2017, the band Se So Neon instantly shot to fame, capturing fans with Hwang’s uniquely husky voice and epicene visuals. With the first album “Summer Plumage,” the band was named the rookie of the year at the Korean Music Awards in 2018, being invited to rock festivals and TV shows -- a very rare case for a rookie indie rock band. In December 2018, the initial drummer and bassist -- Gangto and Moon Fancy -- left the band, and U-su and Park filled in the spots through an audition.
For both U-su and Park, becoming a part of Se So Neon itself had been a turning point of their lives. Both having majored in applied music in college, U-su had been working irregularly as part of music sessions while Park had been looking for similar jobs -- one of the limited career paths pursuable by music talents in Korea.
(From left) Park Hyun-jin, Hwang So-yoon and U-su of band Se So Neon. (Magic Strawberry Sound)
“I personally felt ready as a drummer but didn’t know where to focus my energy on. I’d been honing and studying about my sounds alone, and with Se So Neon, I was finally able to make proper use of it,” U-su said.
For Park, joining a band itself was a challenge. “I had no interest in indie music, to be honest. I joined Se So Neon after graduating from school, so it wasn’t easy at the start. But I’m always learning something new here and I’m glad to be a part of the band and to do our music.”
Hwang said she knew U-su and Park would be the right fit at first sight.
“I tend to trust my instincts and I just got a good feeling from them. They caught my eyes because they didn’t try to stand out. They just played the instruments and seemed to enjoy themselves. I saw so many videos from applicants and most of them felt excessive to me. Forming a band is not an easy job because it’s a process of becoming one, so when I selected my partners, I put the foremost value on whether we’d be able to overcome obstacles together,” the band’s founder said. “My hope is that people would be able to realize that, while the three of us all shine even when alone, we can outshine those individual values when we come together.”
While Hwang is better known as the vocalist and the face of the band to her Korean fans, the 24-year-old states she was a guitarist before she became a singer and is better reputed as one outside Korea.
Also known by her given name Soyoon as a solo artist, Hwang stood on the same stage with the legendary American rock band Velvet Underground’s John Cale in 2019, with Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto among her legions of fans.
Hwang So-yoon of Se So Neon (Magic Strawberry Sound)
Having started playing guitar in elementary school, and picking up electric guitar soon after, Hwang started scribbling scores at a young age. According to Hwang, making music always came easy and natural for her.
“It was like playing for me. And while I wasn’t good with expressing my emotions back then, I think creating music became like a means for emotional relief. I was consoled through the process. I also loved the stage. There was always something mystical and powerful about it space and I loved to imagine myself on it.”
Going beyond the limits
With band music still considered a minor genre in Korea, Hwang’s efforts to share her spotlight with U-su and Park, especially in the domestic music scene, is inevitable. Like in the case of many talents of minority genres, Se So Neon has become more renowned outside the country through overseas concerts. Last December, “Nonadaptation” was named among the 35 best rock albums of 2020 by US music publication Pitchfork while Paste Magazine also selected the same album as their 40 best rock albums of the year.
“It’s funny but, even now when we go on stage, we (U-su and himself) are very often treated as mere instrumental sessions, instead of official members of the band,” Park said, speaking cautiously. “For instance, the pin lights are sometimes dimmed down over us and we’d be pushed out of the camera screens. It’s disappointing at times, but outside Korea, everyone treats the three of us equally. They don’t discriminate us according to who’s the vocal and who’s the bassist, but they just respect us as one single group.”
“I think we’ve now come to just place ourselves outside Korea. Instead of focusing on the fact that band music is a minor genre here, we just look for more opportunities overseas where it’s a part of mainstream music,” U-su said. “It was fascinating to realize how sensitive the foreign audiences were to our every move. They seemed to following us with their eyes as one big entity on stage and react to our actions.”
For similar reasons, Hwang said they do not confine their music to just band music nor is their music consumed just in the band scene.
Se So Neon (Magic Strawberry Sound)
“We do band, indie, rock and even R&B style music, and I define our music as just ‘Se So Neon-ish.’ It can’t be defined in a single expression, but I trust that our listeners know what this means and what our music feels like. Anyone can enjoy our music, from those who listen to only K-pop or classical music, or those in their teens to those in their 50s. And we’ll continue to evolve and change as well,” Hwang said.
“Rather than speaking about what kind of music we do or what goals we have, I think it’s more important how we live every moment and at which moment we do our music. The three of us talk about our moods often. We believe that it’s important we’re in a good mood when we make music or perform on stage because our mood decides the energy we deliver to our listeners. If we want to sing about freedom, we’ll really have to feel free. I think this consensus in our own thoughts and our music is what can truly move the listeners’ heart and I want to show that such attitude in life can make changes.”
By Choi Ji-won (firstname.lastname@example.org)